VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (BP) – Each year in February and March, thousands of people around the country jump into freezing cold waters to raise money for Special Olympics in an event titled the “Polar Plunge.”
Kaitlin Dykes, a Special Olympics athlete from Chesapeake, Va., has been doing the plunge since she became involved with Special Olympics events 10 years ago as a teenager.
“What I like about Special Olympics and doing the fundraisers for Special Olympics is getting to share the gifts and talents that God gave us,” Kaitlin said.
“Special Olympics is a place where everyone feels welcome.”
Kaitlin participates in several Special Olympics events including basketball, softball and soccer.
She said participating in Special Olympics events and fundraisers like the Polar Plunge give her a chance to shine the light of the Christ.
“When I was little I always wanted to be a missionary, however I thought that was about going to a place to be a missionary, but a few years ago I came to realize that I am a missionary,” Kaitlin said.
“If I feel like I can’t do it or don’t feel like plunging I will literally quote ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,’ Philippians 4:13. I also try to share joy, not just the emotion, but joy is Jesus’ love in my heart.”
Kaitlin plunged in the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean in Virginia Beach on Saturday, February 4. The event is one of several plunges throughout the state which raise money for Special Olympics Virginia.
Officials with the organization told local media the Virginia Beach event is their largest fundraiser of the year, with more than 2,500 participants raising more than $1.5 million.
Kaitlin’s mother, Patrice Dykes, said Special Olympics has given her daughter a place not only to feel included, but to thrive.
“As a mom, you worry about your children, you pray over them and I prayed that my children would grow up and live in the center of God’s will for their life,” Patrice said. “I wanted them to seek out the Lord’s will and live in it.
“With Kaitlin having this intellectual disability which we found out when she was very young, we spent years wondering what was her adult life going to look like.
“She’s got this great job (working in the cafeteria at a local hospital) … and she’s busy with Special Olympics. It’s good for her and she’s good for them. It fills a void in her life. It’s like a family. It’s a place where people understand. It’s an answer to prayer.”
Patrice explained Kaitlin has worked her way up to leadership within Special Olympics.
She is currently serving as one of nine Global Messengers for Special Olympics Virginia, which is a program designed to train Special Olympics athletes in speech communication skills in order to promote events.
Kaitlin receives leadership training and help with her speeches. She gave a speech the Friday before the Virginia Beach Polar Plunge at an event Special Olympics hosts at a local elementary school called “cool school.”
“This year’s theme for the Polar Plunge was go for the cold, and so I was I talked about going for the gold in life, which is inclusion and being kind to others,” she said.
Kaitlin also has done many photoshoots and filmed many commercials promoting the plunge. She even got the honor of carrying the ceremonial Olympic Torch on the day of the event.
Special Olympics isn’t the only place Kaitlin feels included and accepted.
The Dykeses attend Great Bridge Baptist Church in Chesapeake, where Kaitlin sings in the choir.
“I have really enjoyed singing with the choir at church,” she said. “It means everyone is welcome to share the gifts that God gave us.”
Patrice added local churches should be a place where the special needs community is embraced and celebrated just as they are.
“The special needs community is genuine, they’re accepting, they’re hard working and while they are intellectually disabled, they are often very wise,” Patrice said. “I don’t think wisdom and intellectual ability are the same thing.
“Churches shouldn’t feel intimidated about working with the intellectually disabled. They should just dive in and get to know them, and I think that they will be more blessed than they knew they would be.”