Kathy Cramer and Julie Harrison have taken the notion and practice of "community service" to soaring new heights. They have risen above and beyond and are rewriting expectations of how much two women could possibly contribute to improving the lives of hundreds of special education athletes in Beaufort and Jasper counties.
The women head up SOAR Special Recreation in Hilton Head, organized in January this year and aided by the support of countless volunteers. Theirs is a singular mission that touches many individuals, families, extended families and friends: leveling the playing field for special needs people in our community.
Cramer and Harrison are a tag team that handles all administrative duties, coordinates all transportation logistics, recruits leaders to supervise group activities, and probably puts Band Aids on scratches if needed.
"This is the last group of people that doesn't have their own voice, and we want them to be treated like everyone else," said Cramer, program director and a retired special education teacher in the local school system for 33 years. "We need to help people understand who these people are so they can be included. Our motto is 'everyone has the right to play.'"
Harrison, assistant director of the organization, agreed. "We live in an area that offers an abundance of recreation opportunities, but there is a group of people in our community for whom these opportunities do not exist," she said. "We want to offer everyone in our community not just the chance to play, but to play together."
With a $70,000 grant of seed money from the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry, SOAR went into action to make sure special needs people from ages 8 to 84 can play and interact with their peers ... and compete athletically.
With its partnership with the Hilton Head Island Recreation Association, SOAR organizes and oversees Special Olympics programs and provides year-round training in basketball, horseback riding, golf, tennis, swimming and cheerleading.
After-school and weekend activities and summer camp also are on its agenda.
But, to truly provide equal access, SOAR needs $65,000 to purchase a wheelchair-accessible bus equipped for special needs people to come and go from activities they otherwise couldn't attend.
So far the organization has collected $2,000. The two leaders are confident the balance of the money will come in. "We need the money by tomorrow," Cramer said. "If you can just find me one millionaire, then we can stop working on this and move on to better things."
This week, the duo is meeting with 10 special people and their parents to discuss what they most want to do - go to the movies, dine out together, go bowling, whatever.
Theirs is a free exchange of ideas, wants and needs.
"It's up to them, not me, so I can't say what the group is going to do," Cramer said.
Here's what SOAR has done in its brief life. In April, it hosted the regional Special Olympics on the island that attracted 300 special athletes and 400 volunteers.
Later this year, SOAR will host regional and national competitions in tennis and golf. Two of the local athletic stars from Bluffton are going to the World Games competition in Los Angeles this summer.
Even though Cramer and Harrison received start-up money for a year to launch their efforts, they still need money to keep it going and buy the bus.
"To my knowledge, there are no rec centers, any kind of tax dollars that are for recreation for special needs people," Cramer said. "That's part of the reason we're doing this, because it's really needed."
For more information or to donate to the new organization, visit www.soar specialrecreation.org or call 843-682-2233. To make a donation for the SOAR bus, visit www.gofundme.com/soarneeds abus.
Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer living in Bluffton.