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Special Olympics becomes family to longtime volunteers

When Jake and Lauren Harkey first found Special Olympics as Appalachian State freshmen, they didn’t even realize they were looking for all that it could offer them.

“I dragged Jake along to a club meeting with me,” explained Lauren. “Keron Poteat (the local coordinator for Special Olympics Watauga County) was there to recruit volunteers to help with cycling. I didn’t cycle, but I knew someone who did!”

“That someone was me,” Jake laughed. “I started helping out with cycling practice and Lauren came along to cheer on the athletes. We quickly realized just how amazing volunteering with Special Olympics was.”

“It was the one part of the week that I found myself looking forward to the most because the athletes were so welcoming and excited about being there. You knew that part of the week was going to be great. They wrapped us into their family without hesitation,” explained Lauren.

That family became exceptionally important in September 2008.

“We were hiking at Linville Gorge and tried to take a shortcut, but found ourselves climbing up some rocks. My foot slipped on a rock and I fell. Jake tried to reach around and catch me, but missed and fell headfirst.”

“Because of the way I fell, I was pretty out of it and when Lauren realized that I wasn’t going to be able get myself out, she took it upon herself to get help,” continued Jake.

With a broken back and collarbone, Lauren walked for over two hours in search of help, finally coming across a house where she called 911.  The couple was reunited at a Charlotte hospital where they learned they had both fallen 70 feet and broken multiple bones.

The couple knew that their injuries would sideline them from their Special Olympics coaching duties, but what they couldn’t have imagined was just how strongly their Special Olympics family would rally around them.

“Keron and the rest of our Special Olympics family were amazing. Keron was (and is) very much our second mom. She heard about our accident on the radio and rushed to her office to get our parents’ contact information so she could check in on us. The athletes sent us cards, well wishes and cheered us on the entire time we recovered,” said Lauren.

The Watauga County volleyball team took it one step further: renaming themselves the J&L Trailblazers for the season in honor of their coaches.

Over the years, the Harkeys would get more involved in Special Olympics, eventually coaching everything from Alpine skiing to cycling to athletics and even cheerleading. Both have served as Unified Partners, training and competing alongside individuals with intellectual disabilities. Jake took his involvement one step further when he joined the Boone Police Department, encouraging his department to become more involved in the Law Enforcement Torch Run.

“10 years later and they are still going strong! Each season, we can count on them to coach, manage, organize and serve in any role they’re asked to fill.” explained Keron Poteat.

Throughout the past decade, the Harkeys haven’t missed much with Special Olympics. Each of them have been to World Games as a coach at least once, with Lauren adding a USA Games to her resume as well. They’ve traveled to new countries, met people from around the world and made so many memories.

But the unique locations and pageantry of these big events can’t compare to the reason they got involved in the first place: the athletes.

“It’s the most rewarding experience you can ever imagine. You have to try it out to be able to understand what you’re missing. I’ve loved my time with Special Olympics, especially coaching the same Alpine skiing athletes for the past 10 years. You see how far they’ve come, how much they’ve learned, how much they taught you and it’s just amazing.” explained Jake.

Members of Special Olympics Watauga County think the Harkeys are pretty amazing. “You can’t find two finer folks anywhere, and I’m so glad you can find them here!” said Poteat.

Special Olympics isn’t possible without committed volunteers, but there are certain volunteers that stand out from the crowd and the Harkeys are the perfect example of that. For 10 years, they have given so much of themselves to the athletes of Watauga County, but have gotten so much more in return.

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