If you’ve ever had the chance to experience the annual Special Olympics Northern California (SONC) Summer Games – or a variety of other events, such as the Contra Costa County School Games – you’ve probably seen a number of friendly volunteers clad in signature blue T-shirts.
These volunteers represent Chevron – a valued corporate partner for SONC since 2012. Along with contributing generously to help fund Special Olympics sports and keep all programs free for the athletes, Chevron goes a step further by encouraging its employees to volunteer at events such as the Summer Games. Chevron volunteers, along with their invited family and friends, assist with a number of activities at Summer Games and can largely be found at the pool, where they help to time swimming races; cheer on the athletes; escort athletes to their respective lanes; and lend a hand with a host of other responsibilities.
Many Chevron employees have chosen to volunteer year after year and have enjoyed not only seeing the impact that the event has on the athletes; but also feeling the impact that Special Olympics has had on them as individuals:
“Initially it’s like, ‘OK we’re going to go help,’” said Johnny Pak, a Chevron employee and SONC volunteer. “But I would pay to go help now. I’m so glad that I went. It has made me more grateful as a person. I got to witness some incredible athletes. There was incredible enthusiasm among the athletes, fans and volunteers. It’s all about excitement and happiness. It doesn’t matter who comes in first or last. At the end, everybody celebrates.”
Pak has volunteered at the Summer Games since 2015 with his two sons, Darian and Nicholas. The boys started when they were 10 and 12, respectively, and are now 15 and 17. Pak remembers being impressed with his sons’ enthusiasm for the athletes and their acceptance and appreciation for all different abilities. Darian later surprised his dad by signing up for an inclusive P.E. class at his school, where he is partnered up with a classmate with a disability. Darian helps lead fitness activities for students with disabilities and participates in fun social inclusion activities like making videos with his class partner.
“Would that have happened if I didn’t take them to volunteer at the Special Olympics?” Pak wondered. “It goes back to the start of this journey when we thought we were going to just give some time. But me and my family have received so much more than we have given.”
Chevron Employee Tracee Talavera began her involvement back in the 1980s when she was a member of the United States Olympic Gymnastics Team and was invited to be a guest at Special Olympics events in California and Oregon. Competing at the highest level in the world has a lot of stressors that goes along with it – including politics, press and more – so Talavera appreciated the kindness of Special Olympics.
“It’s a wonderful group of people,” said Talavera. “In the Special Olympics world, all of the athletes and coaches work together and get along, for the most part. The athletes are certainly trying to do their best; and everyone is happy just to be a part of it. It’s really fulfilling to be around it.”
Talavera has volunteered as a part of the Chevron team for the last two years at SONC’s Summer Games and described the athlete’s excitement of living in the moment as something she appreciates the most.
“Seeing the athletes, when they are in the midst of competing or afterward, and just how happy they are,” said Talavera. “How excited they are to just be there. And sometimes I think everyone should have that same excitement of just being there.”
The 2020 SONC Summer Games, along with all spring sports, have been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic; and many athletes are very disappointed that they won’t be able to compete in person with their friends and teammates. Some athletes train throughout the year for the Summer Games. And Talavera can uniquely relate to the feeling.
“I can speak to it, being that in 1980 the U.S. boycotted the Olympics – and I had made the team that year,” said Talavera, who went on to earn a silver medal at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. “And yeah, it was disappointing. But with this virus, we’re all in the same boat. We’re all in it together. It’s important for Special Olympics athletes to stay in shape. And not just to win medals – but for your overall physical and mental health. So I’d say for Special Olympics athletes to continue to enjoy sports and what they love about them. So when they raise that green flag saying everyone can go now, you’ll be ready.”
Pak also shares the athletes’ disappointment, but is looking forward to supporting again next year at Summer Games.
“For me, personally, I was really bummed,” Pak said. “I was looking forward to seeing the athletes compete again because they’re incredible. It’s on my calendar every year as something I do with my family. But it’s the right thing to do to stay at home. For the athletes, continue to train and stay disciplined so we can go do this next year.”
SONC relies on the support from corporate partners and the more than 28,000 volunteers who dedicate their time, energy and resources toward the athletes. Chevron’s dedication to Special Olympics, both on and off the field, continues throughout this time of suspended competitions, to help keep our athletes motivated, connected and healthy until we can all get back together.