Last month I had the honor of volunteering at the 9th Special Olympics Morocco with 20 other Peace Corps volunteers. It was held in Ifrane, a town nestled high in the Middle Atlas mountains. It’s called the Moroccan Switzerland because it snows there in the winter, and the houses have sloped roofs! It was so green compared to the desert landscape where I live.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver founded Special Olympics International in the 1950s when “she saw how unjustly and unfairly people with intellectual disabilities were treated. She also saw that many children with intellectual disabilities didn’t even have a place to play.” The first International Special Olympics was held in 1968 in Chicago. Read more.
Special Olympics Morocco was established in 1995 and has been held every two years since then. The best associations working with children and adults with intellectual disabilities participate in the event. I was really impressed with the work of the associations. They have created very supportive communities for the kids with expert coaches. The coaches were so patient and loving with the kids. The kids also took great care of their teammates and friends. They would express their joy by breaking out into typical Moroccan song and dance at all times during the week. I met three associations from my area (Marrakesh) and one that has a huge center that offers arts, sports, and vocational skills, like cooking.
This year about 2,000 athletes competed in 16 sports: Aquatics, Athletics, Badminton, Basketball, Bocce, Cycling, Equestrian, Floor Hockey, Soccer, Golf, Gymnastics, Handball, Power Lifting, Ping Pong, Tennis, and Volleyball. Golf was included for the first time in Morocco. The events were held at different facilities around the city, and also at Al Akhawayn University, a private American liberal arts university (with instruction in English) with great facilities. I felt like I was in Europe (Swiss village) and the US (on a college campus) at the same time.
My role was to assist the staff, coaches, athletes, and their families in any way possible throughout the week. For example, I directed athletes to their places on the start line, distributed water, served lunch and dinner, took care of the equipment, and handed out medals.
I attended almost all of the sports events and could tell that the athletes had trained a lot. A few athletes had already competed in the Regional Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Special Olympics and International Special Olympics. They proudly showed me photos taken at the Los Angeles games last year. All the athletes demonstrated good sportsmanship, shaking hands with the opponents, acknowledging good plays made by others, and accepting bad calls gracefully.
On the sidelines of the games, families from the MENA Region (Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Qatar, Lebanon, Palestine, Morocco, and Iran) shared their experiences, challenges and suggestions. All the athletes were offered free health screenings: vision exam, hearing tests, dental hygiene, and general fitness.
I was really moved by the experience and am grateful to have been a part of the Special Olympics, thanks to the Peace Corps. The associations were so inspiring and gave me hope for services to improve people’s lives.