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Making kids special

Volunteer coach helps local athletes shine at Special Olympics


by: SAMANTHA MOLLENHOUR - Samantha Mollenhour (right) with Evan Kirtland, an athlete she coaches. Mollenhour mentors athletes of all ages for the Special Olympics Oregon.An estimated 1,200 local athletes will compete in the Special Olympics Oregon state games this weekend, on Saturday, July 12, and Sunday, July 13, at Newberg High School.

Scappoose mother Samantha Mollenhour has been volunteering with the Special Olympics as a coach for nine years.

This weekend, she will head to Newberg to watch the dozens of athletes she trains each season demonstrate the athletic skills she’s helped them hone.

Oregon is home to nearly 12,000 Special Olympics athletes, who compete in 14 different Olympic-style sports, according to the organization. All of them rely on family, friends, caretakers and volunteer coaches.

As she embarks on nearly a decade with the program, Mollenhour takes some time to reflect on what keeps her coming back each year.

“For me, the best part is just watching the athletes grow from season to season,” Mollenhour says. “It’s really encouraging for us to see their development. It’s a safe environment for them. It’s a comfortable place for them to be themselves.”

Mollenhour, who works full time as a quality assurance manager for Wells Fargo, says she got involved with the local program via her mother-in-law.

“She used to drive the special needs bus for Scappoose School District and reached out to me when she heard they needed help with the program,” Mollenhour recalls.

Since then, Mollenhour’s dedication to the organization has been unwavering. In addition to coaching, she runs the local program, but not without help. She coordinates the program with help from a partner, as well as her whole family.

“They saw how passionate I was about it and they see how much fun it is and how rewarding it is to work with the athletes,” she says.

Mollenhour’s coaching has improved the lives of local athletes like Tony Walz.

Walz, 31, grew up in Deer Island and St. Helens. He now calls Rainier home. Walz says he played sports as a child, and when he was approached by his case worker to do the Special Olympics, he accepted the challenge.

“I was hesitant,” Walz admits, “but I got involved, and ever since, I like it.”

Walz and his teammates will play softball this weekend in the state games. He’ll be second baseman.

Mollenhour trains Walz and 20 to 35 other athletes each year in softball, basketball and bowling.

As the games approach this weekend, Walz is relaxed. He and his fellow athletes train every Sunday during the competitive seasons.

Like most athletes, he still experiences the pre-game jitters.

“I get nervous because I don’t know if I’m gonna make a play or hit the ball,” Walz says. For him, the reward of socialization and friendship outweighs the joy of competing.

He cites his favorite aspect of the games as “meeting different people.”

Like Walz, Mollenhour’s satisfaction comes from her interaction with each of the players.

“It’s a small time commitment being a coach,” she says, “but the reward is so huge.”