Linnea Edwards, 32, has special needs. While her life has always been full and she’s been surrounded by love, Linnea has found special inspiration with her involvement in the Special Olympics. In fact, it’s inspired her to live independently.

“Her new love for stand up paddleboarding (SUP) encouraged her to start watching her weight and she ended up self-motivating herself to lose 50 pounds, which is not something we could get her to do,” said Linnea’s mom, Bunny Edwards. “And she doesn’t stay with mommy and daddy anymore. She has been independently living for a year. The community has embraced her as one of their own. She got the feeling of acceptance that she needed.”

The Special Olympics Paddleboard program started about three years ago after special needs teacher Ruth Holland discovered the sport and realized the benefit it could have on her students. She had no idea it would be so effective.

“Linnea’s story is just one of many. The most important part is the community involvement. Staff at Lazy Dog’s, practice headquarters, do not make them feel like they have intellectual disabilities. They treat them like regular people. These athletes look up to them,” said Holland.

Holland and the Special Olympics are putting on the 2014 SUP Invitational on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 11-12, at Higgs Beach. The event raises funds to continue the program that relies heavily on donations. There are a variety of races for novice and experienced paddleboarders, including the estimated 100 Special Olympics athletes. Race registration is $25 and Lazy Dog is renting boards for $10 with all the proceeds going to the non-profit.

“It is a truly moving experience watching these athletes do their best on race day,” said Holland. “It reminds us what sharing, giving and happiness is all about.”

The paddelboard race is just one of the many Special Olympics events in Monroe County. There are swim meets at FKCC, bocce ball is played at the Key West Bocce Courts, plus athletes also bowl and cycle up and down the Keys from Key West to Marathon. Maria Pierce is the director of Special Olympics in Monroe County. She started it 33 years ago when her niece with an intellectual disability arrived from Cuba. The decades of work have been a delight, she said.

“I had one brand new athlete that finally came to bocce practice after months of trying to convince him. His first time playing he was selected to go to state, and when he got a medal around his neck, I could not get him to stop smiling,” said Pierce. “ It gives these individuals a feeling of self worth.”

The Special Olympics of Monroe County organization always needs volunteers and coaches. To get involved send Holland an email at [email protected].

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