A small 111-square mile island off the coast of South America became a part of Special Olympics history when Bonaire played host to the first-ever Special Olympics Dutch Caribbean Kingdom Games November 3-5.
In collaboration with the Dutch government and Special Olympics Bonaire, competition was held in six sports for 119 Special Olympics athletes from Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, Sint Eustatius, and St. Maarten.
“In February of this year, a great adventure began,” explains Niels Cannegieter, who led the team coordinating the event. Together with the Ministerie van Volksgezondheid, Welzijn en Sport, Eddy van Veghel and Nick Veenbrink, we came up with a unique inclusive event for people with intellectual disabilities. An event in which all the islands of our Caribbean Kingdom could participate, and we would welcome them to beautiful Bonaire.”
From the moment delegations stepped foot on Bonaire and were greeted with a festive airport welcome featuring a raucous crowd from Special Olympics Bonaire, the feelings of warmth, hospitality, and, most importantly, a true commitment to inclusion were ever-present.
“We are so excited to have the Special Olympics Dutch Caribbean Kingdom Games here in Bonaire!” said Rolanda Hellburg-Makaai, Special Olympics Bonaire Board Chair. “I wish all the luck to the athletes competing this weekend and know we’ll all have a wonderful time!”
That excitement was palpable during Opening Ceremony as delegations marched through downtown Bonaire streets lined with families, friends and well-wishers. Music from T-E Boyz filled the streets as athletes and coaches danced their way to Wilhelminaplein, where the Opening Ceremony program took place. Speakers included Niels Cannegieter, Rolanda Hellburg-Makaai, Special Olympics Bonaire Board Chair, Clark Abraham, Member of the Bonaire Island Council, and Lorna Bell, Executive Director, Special Olympics Caribbean Initiative.
“I am overwhelmed and excited to see this happening in Bonaire. This is a testament that we in Special Olympics are serious about working together to make sure no one is left behind,” said Bell.
As Opening Ceremony drew to a close, Roël Scherptong, a Special Olympics Bonaire athlete, had a moment in the spotlight he’ll never forget.
“That’s my boy!” his mother exclaimed beaming with pride as her son carried the Flame of Hope into Opening Ceremony, backed by members of Bonaire’s law enforcement. After safely delivering the Flame of Hope, Scherptong delivered the Special Olympics athlete oath in a moment that left him overcome with emotion.
The excitement found at Opening Ceremony quickly turned to focus as athletes prepared to begin competition in Special Olympics stalwarts like athletics, bocce, football (soccer), and swimming. But two new sports quickly grabbed the attention of athletes and fans alike: beach volleyball and baseball5™, a fast-paced team sport where individual skills and hand-eye coordination are highlighted.
While what happened on the pitch, track and court was understandably a large focus, the impact of the Dutch Caribbean Kingdom Games could be felt around the island. Prior to competition, Special Olympics Bonaire hosted its first Family Health Forum with support from Lions Club International Foundation and the Aruna Abhey Oswal Trust.
Family Health Forums provide a space for the families and caregivers of people with intellectual disabilities to engage with health professionals, community leaders and social service providers and the one held in Bonaire was no exception. Bringing together more than 50 families, caregivers, and community members, it was an excellent example of the potential for growth that exists across the Caribbean, including Bonaire.
“I always walk away from events in the Caribbean with the same feeling: that together, there is nothing that we cannot achieve,” said Greg Epperson, President and Regional Managing Director of Special Olympics North America, during his welcome remarks at the Family Health Forum. “I have no doubt that we’re going to change the future. We’re right at an intersection of history and possibility and I really think we have to focus on the possibilities and what’s to come for our organization.”
The commitment to health equity continued during Healthy Athletes screenings as all athletes were given the opportunity to participate in Health Promotion and FUNFitness screenings after competition ended for the weekend. Clinical Directors Dr. Tameka Stephenson and Angela Mcintosh led a team of key volunteers, including many from Lions Club Bonaire, as they provided key health information about portion size, healthy eating and proper hydration alongside assessments of strength, flexibility, and balance.
As with all Special Olympics events, big and small, the event ended with a celebratory dance party overlooking the ocean. As the DJ blasted hits people couldn’t resist dancing to, all had cause for celebration. Athletes celebrating personal bests. Coaches celebrating the joy of watching athletes achieve something that had been previously out of reach. Event organizers celebrating a job well done. But most importantly, an entire tight-knit community celebrating a key step to a more inclusive society for all its citizens.