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Farmington's Special Olympics program hopes to grow

Rochelle Tillison is the head of delegation for the Farmington Tigers Special Olympics teams. She's hoping to expand the local program with more volunteers and athletes.

In this Olympic year, Empire township resident Rochelle Tillison is trying to recruit her own athletes and volunteers.

Tillison is looking for new athletes for the Farmington area Special Olympics teams. As the head of delegation for the Farmington Tigers Special Olympics teams, she’s hoping to expand the rosters, and welcome new families in the process.

Farmington has had a Special Olympics team for a number of years, though Tillison just took on her position a little over a year ago. It took her a bit to get settled in and familiar with all of the programs, but now she’s looking to bring more athletes and families on board.

Tillison knows the triumphs and challenges facing the family of a child with special needs. She has a brother who has special needs, and her 9-year-old daughter was born with Down’s Syndrome. And she wouldn’t change it if she could.

As the parent of a child with special needs, Tillison has learned to celebrate all of the little things of everyday life. She tells a story of teaching her daughter how to clap, and how that process — getting her daughter to move her hands toward each other with enough force to create sound — caused a major celebration in the Tillison house.

“We were celebrating that for a month,” she said. “But you have to take the time to celebrate things like that, because it’s a huge achievement.”

Tillison knows there are other families in the area who are celebrating those kinds of seemingly little achievements with their own special needs children. Now she wants to make sure those families know about Farmington’s Special Olympics teams.

The teams

The local program is open to all people — not just children — with special needs. The Tiger Paws program is open to children ages 6-7. It’s an introductory team in that the kids get to participate in sports, but they are not competing yet.

The Farmington Tigers team is the competition level. It’s open for those 8 years old through adulthood. A lot of people think they can’t compete after they turn 18, or their adult children cannot compete. That’s not the case at all, Tillison said.

“That’s really important to note,” Tillison said. “Being part of Special Olympics doesn’t end when they graduate high school. That’s not the case at all. They can continue on in the program as long as they want.”

In the past, Farmington has had two teams that compete — a bowling team, and a track and field team. Interest in both teams is growing, and Tillison is thrilled. This year Farmington’s bowling team boasted 18 members. Of those bowlers, 14 went on to compete at state.

A new basketball team is also forming in Farmington, and so far there’s a lot of interest. Tillison has between 35 and 40 athletes registered for the area competition, which will be held March 9 in Farmington.

Recently, she’s made contact with a softball coach who has experience working with adaptive sports. With that new connection, Farmington Special Olympics will start a new softball program this spring.

Reaching out

Tillison is hoping that not only will more athletes come forward for the local Special Olympics teams, but that more volunteers will step forward, as well.

She’s working with Farmington High School special education teacher Jennifer Guite to set up a new organization within the school, called the Youth Activation Committee. The YAC will give students the opportunity to not only assist in Special Olympics events, but work with their peers to spread acceptance and understanding of issues related to students with special needs.

At the same time, Tillison is trying to get more volunteers to come forward to help with activities. There is a coach-athlete ratio she has to work within for all events. Not having enough volunteers could mean turning away athletes who could benefit from the Special Olympics program.

She encourages the parents to get involved in the programs, too, so the parents of special needs children are able to build their own support networks.

“We’re asking for volunteers so the families can step back and connect,” she said. “That’s huge. Seeing those parents make connections is important. It’s a rough road for them, and sometimes it’s nice to have another parent who gets it.”

For more on the Special Olympics program, email Tillison at 12tigerpaws@

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and served as the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 

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