Humboldt’s Special Olympics: ‘This Is the Ultimate Expression of Community’

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Barbara Short surrounded by friends and family prepares for the Redwood Games. [All photos provided by Joe Rial.]

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Joe Rial, a new teacher in the area, sent in his description of working at our local Special Olympics, the world’s largest sports organization for kids and adults with intellectual disabilities.

The Redwood Games are Humbolt County’s Special Olympics. They take place in The Founders Grove in the Heart of the Redwoods and are attended by hundreds of locals every year. The grounds are perfect for this event, providing camping, bathroom facilities, and an outdoor dining area and kitchen. They also happen to coincide with the time I am able to fly out from New York to visit my family. My sister Shanda is a major contributor, coordinating many volunteers in the various duties needed. She is a force of nature who helps out with community events such as the Harley Run, Reggae on the River, and Arts in the Schools. She is one of those selfless people who lives to give, and creates community in its service. When I offered my help, Shanda handily put me to work in the kitchen.

Shanda Centeno taking a break from the long days of preparation.

Shanda Centeno taking a break from the long days of preparation.

This is my fifth Summer Games in the kitchen with these generous, hardworking people, who all show up each year. We have come to be like family and the comradery is easy and fun. Everyone takes whatever position is needed of them. When the pans and dishes pile up, someone knocks them down, everyone taking a turn at this never-ending task. I got to chop up hundreds of vegetables, fruits and meats, frying and serving until the last client is fed. By the end of the day, we are all weary and dead on our feet. Despite this, we are up at the crack of dawn the next day to be sure the coffee flows and the teams are fed. Moreover, everyone is patient and loving in their attention to the client’s needs.

The last night of the games, there is the awards ceremony, and dance. Afterwards the participants parade out to a grove in the back of the grounds for a treasure hunt. The hunt is an annual tradition Shanda introduced some years back. This year it was headed by another hero, Sarah Sunshine Short and her sister Barbara as well as assorted friends and family, who have laboriously spent the afternoon hiding prizes that the Short sisters collected or bought throughout the year. Around these are spread glow sticks and rings in the trees and on the ground. This year, seven thousand glow sticks dressed an area about the size of two football fields. You cannot imagine the surreal experience of walking in this neon wonderland. The first time I walked into this, I said that I could not imagine the cleanup involved in this magical moment. Shanda just smiled and said, “Watch”.

Sarah Short gathered prizes throughout the year for the clients to find during the Games.

Sarah Short gathered prizes throughout the year for the clients to find during the Games.

The grove was opened first to wheel chairs and people with difficulties walking. Then, the rest were released to enter the zone. The mob moved through the area collecting prizes that were lit with neon until they reached the end of the glowing grotto. Once everyone was assembled at the back, the word was given and the crowd collected the glow sticks on their return to the campgrounds. Within minutes, every single glow stick evaporated. In fact, if you walk too slowly, you will be swallowed in darkness. For this, a procession of us will hang back to sweep the area for any stragglers.

Everyone returns to the kitchen for some desert before returning to decorate their camp for the night and to share prizes with people who may not have found anything. This is their moment; exhausted elation and take home treasure for everyone.

For me, this is the ultimate expression of community; a collective embrace of the members who often feel the least a part of a community. I have never been a part of something so rewarding as this event.
The games are in need of new volunteers to help keep this tradition going.
Sarah told me she spent a great deal of money to help fill out the treasure for the grove. The Community Cornerstone in Redway accepts donations for the Games if anyone wants to contribute to this wonderful event–games, puzzles, household items and anything else that might be useful or fun are welcome. For more information, go to [Also here.]



  • Wonderful story! Love the good news! Thank you so much for the selfless volunteers for creating such a wonderful experience for the athletes! My niece participates in special Olympics & it is the highlight of her year! I hope this coverage draws even more donations & support for you! Very well done!

  • It is truly a magical event in need of Community support.
    Thank you Joe .

  • its stories like these that make me happy to live in the area we call home, Thank You to all that take part in this special event.

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