By Tracy McDannald and Sean Minnihan
Attend a Special Olympics Southern California event and it will be hard to miss spotting a volunteer in any direction you turn. They assist in several capacities, from coaches to souvenir boutique volunteers to medics.
Yet, perhaps the easiest place to overlook a volunteer at work is on the actual playing field.
Or, in Ron Melvin’s case, inside the parameters of a floor hockey rink. When he’s not assisting prospective homeowners as a realtor in Concord, Calif., Ron is traveling up and down the state – and sometimes farther – as a Special Olympics floor hockey official. One stretch in February took him to San Diego on one Saturday and to Santa Maria the following weekend.
His involvement spans 30 years, and in that time he’s been invited to officiate four Special Olympics World Games, too. But his first encounter was as an observer in high school, just before he was getting ready enlist in the Air Force.
“I always thought, ‘Man, those were the good kids down there, working with Special Olympics athletes,’” he recalled.
“The Air Force life was really good for me, and I got to go to school. But I thought, ‘Man, I’ve got to give back.’ That always stuck in my mind, the good kids doing something, and I wanted to be one of the good people.”
Today, Ron volunteers his time at least once a month, but the floor hockey season “gets busy for us” and that number swells.
That’s right, “us.” Ron is just one in a group of officials who dedicate their time – and some travel from out of state – to help oversee SOSC floor hockey competitions.
Among his responsibilities, Ron assigns referees to each floor hockey event, including those he does not attend.
Meet Michele Farhat of Sparks, Nev.
You could drive pretty far in 459 miles. From Los Angeles, you could drive to the likes of Lake Tahoe, Zion National Park in Utah, Tucson, Ariz., or even the sunny beaches of Rosarito, Mexico on the Baja Peninsula.
Yet for Michele, she decided to use those 459 miles to drive from her home just outside Reno to the city of Santa Maria to volunteer as an official for the Northern Santa Barbara Regional floor hockey competition. As a 14 year veteran of officiating floor hockey, Michele truly exemplifies what it means to “go the distance.”
Michele, who started her volunteer career in the San Francisco Bay Area, continues to serve and officiate in floor hockey competitions with as many as eight events in a calendar year. Distance is not an impediment to continuing her passion of working with Special Olympics athletes. She explained that while Nevada does not currently offer floor hockey as a sport, she finds the time to travel to Northern and Southern California, and even to Arizona, to stay connected with the sport and athletes she’s come to feel connected to.
Michele’s connection is reinforced with her work as a Special Education teacher and autism specialist. Michele admitted that while her work in the classroom is important, “it’s really good to see the other side.”
“It’s nice to see the recreation and the fun side of everything that athletes and students get to do,” she added.
“It’s fun! It’s a community – whether you’re talking about the athletes, the coaches, the other officials. Everybody wants to do what’s right for [the] athletes.”
Michele’s recognition of the value of Special Olympics also extends to her family as they attended their first event in Santa Maria. “They were just fascinated by their ability to adhere to the rules, and follow the rules, and their competitive spirit,” Michele said.
Ask around and that pool of officials and SOSC staff members will say something similar: The volunteers are like a fraternity, basically family.
Well, for Ron, it’s literally one in the same. Tonantzin, his 15-year-old daughter, travels with him to events and officiates, too. The connection with Special Olympics started before she was even born.
“She’s been doing this since birth,” Ron said. “As a matter of fact, my wife was pregnant when she was out here doing it.”
Most people just call her Toni, for short, and she was running around at Special Olympics events that predate her memory, but she’s “seen pictures.” Previous roles have included retrieving score sheets for the nerve center.
“I just remember growing up [with Special Olympics],” Toni said. “Everybody’s seen me grow up, and I call everybody auntie and uncle.
“It’s always really fun to watch the athletes.”
While Toni hasn’t pinpointed “that aha moment,” the exuberant joy the athletes compete with always stands out.
“You see an athlete score a goal and they’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ It’s always really nice to see that,” she said.
That passion for sports and competition hooked Ron 30 years ago.
“You’re going to find that this is an addictive environment,” Ron said. “You come in and have so much fun. It’s such a blast around these athletes. The athletic ability, it’s unbelievable, just what level (they compete at). Some of the stories behind them, what they’ve overcome, they inspire you.”
Floor hockey season is just one of many sports Ron officiates. He also assists with basketball, track and field, and the newly offered flag football program.
His year-round motivation all circles back to the people involved.
“Now, 30 years later, it’s just fun for me. These athletes have become my friends,” Ron said.
“You notice there’s a close kinship between us all, and the athletes as well. That’s what keeps me here.”
Special Olympics Southern California is always looking for a helping hand. If you are interested in becoming an official, or volunteering in another capacity, please visit SOSC.org/volunteer for more information.