Special Olympics is one big family for ‘Uncle Larry’

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Special Olympians and volunteers prepare for golf and croquet practice Aug. 14 at the Oxford Greens golf course in Oxford. Beacon Falls resident Larry Doherty (not pictured) has volunteered and coached for the Oxford Special Olympics for 26 years. –KIMBERLY WILSON

OXFORD — The London Olympics may have come to a close but the Oxford Special Olympics are still going strong with the support of numerous volunteers, including Beacon Falls resident Larry Doherty, who serves as the organization’s sports coordinator.

Doherty began his involvement with the Oxford Special Olympics 26 years ago when he moved to Beacon Falls from New York. His sister, Maureen “Mo” Blees had established the Special Olympics branch in 1984 for her daughter Kimmy, who was born with cerebral palsy. When Doherty moved to Connecticut, he took an immediate interest in helping his sister with the organization.

“It’s not just about sports, and it’s not just about winning medals,” Doherty said of the Special Olympics. “It really is about making friends.”

Doherty’s philosophy extends to more than just the athletes. The Oxford Special Olympics has over 70 athletes, about 50 coaches and 40 unified partners (volunteers without intellectual disabilities that practice and compete alongside the athletes). Both Doherty and Blees enjoy working with the volunteers, athletes and their families, and say the organization is closely-knit.

“Our program grew and is still growing,” Blees said. “Everyone works together. No one person can do it alone and we have so many good volunteers. We are so lucky.”

Doherty is one of many of his family members to volunteer with the Oxford Special Olympics. Born the only brother of seven sisters, Doherty currently has 18 nieces and nephews. Almost every family member, including his mother, has assisted with the Special Olympics at some point.

Affectionately referred to as “Uncle Larry” by athletes and volunteers because they were so accustomed to hearing his nieces and nephews address him by the title, Doherty considers the members of the organization “one big family” and welcomes the nickname.

The Oxford Special Olympics offers 11 sports, including alpine skiing, golf, and track and field. The sports offered vary with the season and practices are held weekly. Currently, golf and croquet season is in full swing.

Free use of the Oxford Greens golf course is given to the Oxford Special Olympics every Tuesday night during golf and croquet season. There, athletes and volunteers use the 18-hole course, the driving range, and the putting green.

Doherty is certified in nine sports by the Connecticut Special Olympics and is lifetime-certified in three, meaning he is qualified to coach the sports and doesn’t need to get recertified every three years.

“Everyone thinks that the Special Olympics is just about coming out and having fun, and we do that, but we also make sure that we are teaching them the proper way,” Doherty said, adding that improper form when engaging in a sport can cause injury.

In addition to teaching and working with the athletes, Doherty serves as the webmaster of the Oxford Special Olympics site, coordinates the Facebook page and handles much of the paperwork for athletes and volunteers.

Special Olympian Liam Hibberd practices his putting skills Aug. 14 at the Oxford Greens golf course in Oxford. –KIMBERLY WILSON

Although the paperwork is tedious, being able to volunteer with the Special Olympics has produced many rewarding experiences for Doherty.

“One mom told me she knew she would never see her two children — one with mental disabilities and one without — be on a school team together,” Doherty said. “But at the Special Olympics, she could watch her two children play on the same team.”

Many athletes’ family members and siblings are volunteers, according to Doherty, who thinks of them as the “future coaches” of the Special Olympics.

“It’s a fantastic program,” said June Barakat, the mother of a Naugatuck athlete, who participates in bowling and golf, and a spectator of the Oxford Special Olympics practices. “It gives him the opportunity to socialize with his peers.”

The organization is always seeking more volunteers and Doherty encourages anyone who is interested to contact him using the organization’s website at www.oxfordso.org. Residents of any municipality are welcome to participate and volunteer with the Oxford Special Olympics.

“You don’t have to be good, you just have to take an interest and want to do it,” Doherty said. “I’ve been here 26 years, and I’m still having fun.”