Photo courtesy of Hays Convention and Visitors Bureau.
HAYS, Kan. – Alysha Werth and Chloe Brown have belonged to the same church while attending college but weren’t all that acquainted with each other until recently. The two Fort Hays State University students got to know each other a little better last weekend.
They signed up to volunteer at the Special Olympics Kansas Basketball and Cheerleading Tournament in Hays, and they were assigned to work together at the scorers’ table in one of the Cunningham Hall gyms.
By the conclusion of the two-day tournament, Werth and Brown realized they had more in common than they might have thought, specifically their desire to give of their time.
Werth, a senior elementary education major from Ellis, and Brown, a senior organizational leadership major from Ottawa, both were drawn to the Special Olympics event after volunteering for two years at Night to Shine, a prom for people with special needs.
“The first year at Night to Shine, every time I saw a special needs person, they made me smile,” said Werth, who is adding a minor in special education to her resume. “So when I saw this opportunity to volunteer, I decided to sign up. I am so glad I did. This was so rewarding.”
Special Olympics Kansas is a volunteer-driven organization that features a year-round program of athletic training, health education and competition to more than 5,400 athletes.
The state basketball/cheerleading tournament is held at two different sites, in Hays and Topeka. The Hays tourney, which this year featured about 600 athletes and more than 200 coaches, relies on hundreds of volunteers to help facilitate.
“We know the volunteer base is there in Hays and that we can count on some college students for help,” said Tim Rehder, senior vice president of programs for Kansas Special Olympics, who is in charge of all the state competitions.
Hays has hosted the state basketball and cheerleading tournament for four decades, and about 250 people volunteer to help out each year, including 50 to 75 FHSU students.
“That’s a good feeling, knowing we can more or less run the tournament with students there,” Rehder said.
Werth said she empathized with the Special Olympians. It was quite an undertaking for some to score a basket, no matter how hard they tried.
After graduating from Ellis High School in 2014, Werth decided to stay close to home and attend Fort Hays State.
A first-generation college student, Werth said she was unfamiliar with the ins and outs of making college life a successful venture. She struggled to keep up with her classes, so she took a few semesters off.
“Being the first one in my family who went to college, I didn’t have anyone to help me figure it all out,” she said. “I realized I needed to reach out for help, and FHSU was there all the way. The instructors I have in my classes are amazing and want us to be excited to teach.”
Brown said watching so many Special Olympic games over the weekend “brought everything into perspective.”
“A person can take so many things for granted,” she said. “We always had the opportunity to play on basketball teams growing up. For the special needs people, it’s more difficult.”
“But,” she added, “they are so joyful just to be able to play. Whenever they made a shot, it was the best thing ever.”
Like Werth, Brown changed majors before she found the right fit.
“I had a passion for service and helping others,” Brown said, “so I went into social work at first. But I quickly realized that wasn’t for me.”
Brown found her niche in organizational leadership and plans to work for a non-profit organization that works with special needs citizens when she graduates in 2020.
However, unlike Werth, Brown had tradition on her side when it came to continuing her education after high school. Both Brown’s parents and an older brother all attended college, all in eastern Kansas.
She decided to break that tradition, however, when she decided to attend college on the other side of the state.
“My mom said, ‘You will know when you get there if that’s the right school for you,’ ” Brown said of her college visits her senior year in high school.
Brown visited two other state universities before coming to Hays.
“I remember sitting in the orientation here, and I was looking around, and I felt so comfortable,” she said. “Everywhere we went around the campus that day, I could see myself there the next few years.”
“My mom was right,” Brown continued. “I knew, I had that feeling that Fort Hays State was the right place for me.”
Brown said she is unsure of whether or not she will stay in western Kansas or go closer to home when she graduates in 2020, but wherever she ends up, she will take some valuable lessons with her.
“My professors are always talking about how we should apply what we are learning to what we do when we get out of college,” she said. “It’s basic career preparation, and it’s made a huge impact on me.”
FHSU students made a similar impact on the 2019 Special Olympics event in Hays.
“The fact that students will carve out time, the fact that they consider this important enough to help out, is flattering to us,” he said. “The support we get from Hays, especially the college, is phenomenal. They don’t charge us a dime to come in there and host this event.”