Q&A with Jenny Phelps: Bringing community together for Special Olympics Scotland County

By Kerria Weaver


On April 24, Scotland County held its annual Special Olympics, an event that recognizes those with intellectual disabilities and gives them a chance to compete in a number of events.

This year, Jenny Phelps was the local program coordinator of the Special Olympics alongside Kelly Jackson.

Border Belt Independent spoke with Phelps about her first time helping with the Special Olympics and the importance of having this event.

Q. When was the first Special Olympics held? How long has Scotland County been holding the event?

Eunice Kennedy Shriver is the one who started the Special Olympics. The first Special Olympics games were first held in 1968. North Carolina held its first games in 1970 and had about 400 participants. I’m not sure when it started in Scotland County, but I know Carol Nichols was the driving force behind Special Olympics Scotland County for years until covid hit. She did it for about 12 years. 

Last year, Maggie Wells was the EC (Exceptional Children) director at Scotland County schools, so Angela Hasty took over and did it the one year. Maggie got a job in Richmond County this year, so they were looking for somebody, anybody, to run it. My sister-in-law Kelly Jackson and I, were like, “We can do it.” My background, before I moved back to Laurinburg, was running large-scale adult sporting leagues and tournaments, so it was right up my alley.

Q. How did it feel to be a head person running the Special Olympics this year?

Nervous. I’ve never been involved in the Special Olympics before and neither had Kelly. We didn’t want to change anything. This was kind of our learning year… very nervous, very apprehensive, but very surprised at how the community came together and comes together every year for this event. This was kind of our year to see how everything goes so that next year we can put our stamp on it and make any improvements that need to be made.

Q. On average, how many people participate each year? How many volunteers do you usually have?

There are two categories. We have the athletes, which can be any age 8 and over, and that includes adults. We had 125 athletes. Then we have the young athletes, who are the kids up to ages 8, 7 and below. We had about 80 young athletes this year, so just right at 200 total. Then we had the teachers, plus the school staff that came with the teachers. We had about 90 of those. As for volunteers, whether it be student groups, groups from the hospital, groups from Campbell’s, you guys who came from the Border Belt Independent. We had more 250 volunteers.

Q. What does the Special Olympics slogan mean for you?

The slogan is, “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” To be honest with you, it didn’t really mean a whole lot to me (at first). I understood the meaning behind it, but I didn’t really grasp the concept until I was out there watching those kids. Even when going back through the pictures, it’s hard not to simultaneously smile and almost bring a tear to your eye. Some of those pictures of the kids out there racing shows that it didn’t matter if they were in first place or last place. It didn’t matter because the grins on their faces when they were out there doing it said it all. They were just out there having a good time. They were in the spotlight. Everybody was cheering them on, and it was absolutely fantastic.

Q. What impact do you think the Special Olympics has on special needs kids?

I think it has a huge impact on them, especially those with intellectual disabilities that the Special Olympics helps out. I hate to say that they’re almost forgotten, but they’re never put in the spotlight. They’re never the center of attention. Even if it’s just for the day, even if it’s just when they’re running their events, everybody’s out there cheering them on. They’re in the spotlight. It’s “Go, go, go!”  and you can tell that it just means the world to them to be able to showcase what they can do in front of a lot of people, not just their parents, their teachers or their close circle of friends.

Q. How do you see the Special Olympics changing or improving over time?

One of the things that Kelly and I really want to do is expand the programming. One day is great, but why can’t we have year-round programming? Why can’t we get them involved in bowling or horseback riding or tennis or golf, or any of these other sports? We’d also like to get it so some of these kids can advance and participate in the state games or maybe even the national or the world games. We had a speaker at one of our functions, it was last year sometime, and it was absolutely inspiring. The speaker had intellectual disabilities and was a Special Olympics athlete, but they’d competed all over the world, which made me think, “Why can’t our kids from Laurinburg do it?” So that’s what Kelly and I think as long-term goals, expand the programming and make it more than just one day, make it year-round activities.

Q. What is your favorite thing about the Special Olympics?

My biggest takeaway was just the absolute pure joy on these kids’ faces, not just during the Special Olympics, but after just going through the hordes of pictures that we had and reliving some of the moments. It was great. That was probably my favorite thing, especially since I was busy running all over the place, putting out fires, doing all kinds of stuff. Just those few moments that I actually got to walk by the races and see the kids, or seeing the young athletes playing – those were probably my favorite parts of it. Being able to walk through and watch the kids having a ball.

Q. What impact do you think the Special Olympics has on the community?

I think a lot of the impact is the same it had on me. You can’t go out there and not be happy. If you’re having a bad day, go stand by the 50-meter dashes and watch those kids race. You can’t walk away with a frown on your face. I think that’s why so many members of the community want to get involved and volunteer. I had people calling me the day of the event saying “Hey, can I come volunteer? I’ll do anything you need me to do,” but I think it’s because it’s such a happy day. It’s just a little bit of time to get away from all the bad stuff going on, even if it’s just for a couple hours. It’s just a nice, happy break.