Elyse Garcia and her family have been helping individuals with intellectual disabilities longer than Special Olympics Southern California has carried its current name.
Her mother used to run a swimming program with the Jewish Community Center, and she was approached by the Western Games – which would go on to become the California Special Olympics. Elyse’s sister, the middle daughter of the children, was a swimmer.
Prior to that, Elyse’s parents worked Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts groups for people with disabilities.
When Elyse was about 12 years old, which was the minimum age requirement to volunteer, she assisted with swimming and track and field.
What started in 1968 is still going strong in 2018, and Elyse joked that “it’s kind of like a family business.” In a full circle sort of way, her own children have been involved since they were old enough to volunteer.
“I grew up with all the original athletes in the program so they’re more like peers,” she added. “It’s just what we did. I would hang around with the brothers and sisters of athletes.
“That’s where I met my husband, too. He came as my sister’s volunteer.”
Elyse’s mother passed away in 1999, but her legacy continues on through her daughter’s selfless work. Elyse is the Long Beach area director and helps recruit volunteers. Above all, she looks for people who “have the athletes’ safety in the forefront.”
She also coordinates with facilities to host events, all with the athletes in mind to ensure they get the best experience possible.
“Most of the people in the program I’ve known forever,” Elyse said, “so it’s like fighting for family.”
As Special Olympics celebrates its own 50th anniversary, it’s only fitting that someone involved from the beginning has had numerous interactions with SOSC founder Rafer Johnson. While Elyse isn’t entirely sure he remembers all of their meetings, given how many athletes and families he’s met throughout its existence, there was one encounter that blew her away.
There were about 20 to 30 people in a room for a Winter Games function, she recalled, and Rafer was introduced to each person by name. One hour later, he said goodbye to each person by name.
“He’s the most wonderful man,” Elyse said. “When he walks into any room, the athletes go crazy.”
With 50 years of experience, Elyse has seen the organization evolve and staff members come and go. In recent years, she’s happy to see a shift back toward “an athlete program.”
“It’s back to where it should be,” she said. “The way people are educated now, I think there’s more interest in what’s good for the athlete.”
In fact, the feedback she receives from the athletes’ families stands out above all other memories.
“Families come back saying they don’t know what they would’ve done without Special Olympics,” Elyse said. “Just being able to help one person at a time… it really makes you feel good.”