Inspiring Okeechobee… ‘Seeing them happy makes me happy’

OKEECHOBEE — Bernard Marker began his work with people with disabilities approximately 28 years ago at the Rehab here in Okeechobee. He worked there for about seven years, and then took a little time off and worked as a truck driver. While he was doing that, Doris Hargraves approached him about working with her nephew, and he took her up on that offer, so that got him back into the field he loved so much, he said. When he first started working at the Rehab, he was just looking for a job. He had planned to go into the service, and had gone through all the steps, but was not able to pass the physical due to some back problems. He found he really liked the job. When he went in to work, no matter what kind of day he was having, they made it better. “They don’t know politics, and they don’t know race. They can make the worst day of your life better,” he said.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
Bernard Marker and some of the special athletes enjoy bowling together. Pictured are Craig Webb, James Kennedy, Bernard Marker (center back), Joey Lane, Tom Gorney and Jason Brady.

He worked with other guys with disabilities over the last 26 years, and says he just loves it. He enjoys being around them and spending time with them. “Seeing them happy just makes me happy,” he said.

Mr. Marker has a daughter with autism and she played sports at the different churches when she was younger. She couldn’t actually do the competitive OCRA sports, but she loves sports and when she got too old to play, he started looking into Special Olympics, and no one was doing it here. He hadn’t realized it wasn’t in this area, he said. He kept trying to get his daughter involved in it, but he couldn’t get with the right person to talk to about it.

Bernard Marker’s daughter Carol is holding a torch at the 2019 Torch Run.

He started talking to a lady from Sebring about Special Stars, and she got him involved in that. Originally, they started by joining in on activities with the group from Sebring, but about a year ago, she talked him into forming an Okeechobee group. Last year they did track and field and they have done basketball skills and kickball. They had a luau party. They have done a lot since they started Special Stars, he said. On Oct. 11, they will have their Special Stars Field Day again like they had last year beside Yearling Middle School. Last year they planned on 40 and ended up with 140, he said. He went to Jack Nash and asked if they could help, and they did. “They brought the sheriff’s department, the fire department, Indian River, I was just overwhelmed with the volunteers. They were great. They brought the flag corps out from the sheriff’s department and presented the flag. It was great.”

Special Olympic athletes are excited to get their new shirts.

This year they will be having a three-wheel bike race, a softball throw and some foot races.

Sheriff Noel Stephens and the sheriff’s department do the Torch Run every year, he said, and they see him every year. This year they approached him and told him they raise a lot of money every year, and they would like it to stay in Okeechobee. They wanted to know if he would be willing to bring Special Olympics to Okeechobee. He told them if they could help him figure out who to talk to about it, he would be happy to do it, and they did. Sheriff Stephens, Cpl. Jack Nash, Michele Bell are all in, he said. They pointed him in the right direction and got him a meeting with the right person and a week later, they were calling him wanting to get it started. So, they did!

Special Stars of Okeechobee enjoyed their very first field day last year.

The hard part now is getting the word out. The people Mr. Marker already knew and worked with have joined, but not a lot of people know about it yet. He can’t go door to door and ask if there is anyone in the family who has a physical or intellectual disability who would like to join Special Olympics. He goes to the schools and tries to get it into the paper as often as possible. Right now, they have about 30 athletes. To qualify, an athlete must be at least 8 years old and can participate as long as they feel able to. You can be 100 years old and participate if you want to.

Bowling is one of the activities. They meet in Port St. Lucie, and the county games are Oct. 4 at Super Play USA at 10 a.m. Then Oct. 12, they will have the area games in Fort Lauderdale. Everyone will qualify for area games, but only certain ones will advance to state. Participants have to come in first place in their group to move on. They will have transportation to area games, and they will be provided with a shirt and meals.

Robina and Bernard Marker share information about the Med Fest at the back to school expo.

After bowling, they had planned to compete in basketball, but they have decided to use this year to teach basketball rather than compete, because if the athletes have never played at all and lose every time, they won’t want to play again. They will have basketball skills instead, and they are looking for coaches if anyone is interested. Practices will begin near the end of October.

At the beginning of the year, they will start track and field, and then probably swimming. Next year they will probably add something else. There are a lot of things they can do, but they are just starting out so they are taking it one step at a time.

Special Stars athletes work on their basketball skills.

This year at the high school, they have Unified. That is where the ESE class has a PE class, and they are taught Special Olympics by the PE teacher. The Unified part is that whatever sport they play or whatever they teach, they bring kids from the school, and they blend them together, and it is half Special Olympic athletes and half kids from the school. It’s like an inclusion thing, he said. “I’ve always thought the kids need to know these kids, not just stick the ESE class in the back in some room. I think they should be involved in everything. They are going to be here forever. Whether the other kids want to accept them or not, they need to. They need to learn to respect them. They have feelings, too.”

Bernard Marker enjoys spending time with his friend Hunter Golden (left), who is one of the Special Olympic athletes.

To get involved in any way, you can contact Mr. Marker by phone at 863-801-3393 or you can find them on Facebook at Special Olympics Okeechobee. You can also go to the Special Olympics website, Specialolympicsflorida.org/okeechobee.

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