In 1982 the North Miami Beach Optimist Club petitioned Special Olympics Miami-Dade County for permission to hold a track & field meet on their behalf. In 1983 the Club was sanctioned to hold its’ first “Mini-Meet” under the Special Olympics banner. This initial event was held in February 1983 with 30 Special Olympians participating and Optimist Club members serving as the volunteer “Huggers”. It was held behind North Miami Senior High School on a makeshift track. The event was a resounding success and the membership decided to make this an annual event and Special Olympics concurred.
In 1984 the event was moved to the brand new North Miami Athletic Stadium which had a magnificent regulation track along with long jump pits and seating for over 5,000 spectators. As a result of this first rate facility, the Club invited additional Group Homes and Special Ed classes from Miami-Dade County Schools. We also appealed to local senior high schools and Colleges for their students to serve as volunteer “Huggers”. Each successive year the numbers swelled as we added additional Special Olympic athletes and student volunteers.
The event was starting to be recognized by Special Olympics as well as the community. The Miami Herald, Channel 7 and Channel 10 picked up coverage which helped expose our event to the entire County as well as Broward. There was incredible joy and enthusiasm exhibited between the volunteer “Huggers” and the Special Olympic Athletes. Volunteers started showing up year after year. Participants couldn’t wait for the following year’s event and told their coaches to make sure to sign them up again and again. Special Olympics was particularly pleased as their name and programs were gaining prominent recognition throughout the area.
The entire community started to chip in with the Miami Dolphin Cheerleaders, the University of Miami’s Cheerleading Squad and the Ibis attending year after year to add color and excitement and sign the Athlete’s t-shirts. Subsequently, the Miami Heat Dancers, “Billy” the Marlin, Florida Marlin’s Mermaids, and the Florida Panthers Ice Cats were added to lend excitement and color to the Games.
In 1987 the first “Honorary Chairman” was selected to preside over the Opening Ceremony and greet the Athletes. As the University of Miami Hurricane football team had just won their 2nd National Championship, they were invited as the inaugural “Honorary Chairmen” to rave reviews by the Athletes and volunteers. An “Honorary Chairman” has been invited each year since and include such notable luminaries as Jeff Conine, first baseman/outfielder, Miami Marlins, Bernie Kosar, quarterback, University of Miami Hurricanes, Mark “Super” Duper, receiver, Miami Dolphins, Earl Morrall, quarterback, Miami Dolphins, Gino Torretta, quarterback and ’92 Heisman Trophy winner, University of Miami Hurricanes and Coach Randy Shannon of the University of Miami Hurricane’s Football Team.
In the early 90’s two events occurred to help bring the level of the Games up to today’s current standards. Firstly, our chairman’s teenage son passed away in 1989 due to cancer and to honor him, the Games were re-named “The David L. Singer Memorial Special Olympics”. This led to the creation in 1991 of the David L. Singer Memorial Foundation, a 501(C)(3) IRS approved Corporation to entirely fund the Games as it was now too great an expense to be undertaken by the N.M.B. Optimist Club. The Foundation also provides funding to Special Olympics Miami-Dade County to help cover the expense of sending our winning Athletes to the Florida Special Olympics State Games held annually in various locations around Florida. It is particularly gratifying when these local Athletes return from the State Games with Gold, Silver and Bronze medals.
The second event was in 1992 with the introduction of Mr. Bill Wegehaupt (“Weggie”) from Wisconsin to our program. Bill ran the Track & Field events (Athletics) for Special Olympics International (Washington, D.C.) for two of their International Games held once every four years. By now, the Optimist club wanted to move up a notch and eliminate its’ “Mini-Meet” status and replace it as a “Qualifying” Track & Field Meet in its’ stead. This would mean the participating athletes could go on to attend the State Games. It also meant we had to upgrade our meet to reach the standards of Special Olympics Track & Field requirements. It took 5 years of training of almost 60 of our very dedicated people by “Weggie” for us to attain this goal whereby Special Olympics finally permitted us to re-title our event as a Qualifying Meet. We were the first volunteer group in the country to be sanctioned by Special Olympics to run an official Special Olympics event. This occurred in 1998. Bill still comes down every February to assist us and teach us.
This little event, that started 27 years ago behind North Miami Beach High with 30Athletes and only Optimist Club members as volunteers, has now become the premiere Special Olympics event of the year. We now have upwards of 600 Special Olympians participating with thousands of volunteers from all the local high schools and colleges attending year after year. Eight of the original Optimist Club members that participated in that first event, are still volunteering today! In 2003, at a Leadership Conference in Orlando, Florida, Special Olympics selected our program as one of the top three all-volunteer programs in the United States. Our model is now used by them to assist in outsourcing these types of events to other volunteer groups throughout the country.
We will continue to dedicate ourselves to providing the absolutely best Track & Field Meet for these “Special” athletes as well as continuing to break down the old stereotypes that exist with our mentally and physically challenged citizens.