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For more than 30 years, individuals with special needs have been close to Diana Bennett’s heart.
She taught special education in Hardin County Schools from 1975 to 2010.
Before beginning her teaching career she attended Western Kentucky University and worked as a teacher’s aid in special education. It intrigued her. There was something interesting and different about the class and the students drew her in, Bennett said.
“Special education has always been where my heart is,” she said.
The 60-year-old continues to do a lot in the community for those with special needs. She is on the local board of The Arc, an advocacy group for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and works with Special Olympics.
Involvement with Special Olympics keeps her in contact with the special needs community without some of the stresses that went with teaching, she said.
She’s worked with Special Olympics since 1979. At that time, while teaching a physical education class at Mulberry Helm Education Center, she wanted the students to work toward some sort of goal in class. Participating in Special Olympics became that goal. Her class began with track and field.
Over the years, area Special Olympics has grown to include softball, bowling, basketball, cheerleading and winter games. A few athletes participate in equestrian events and golf on their own, Bennett said.
Currently, Bennett helps with track and field and the bowling league. Bowling typically has the highest participation with about 120 athletes involved, she said.
Bennett’s trying to phase herself out of the other sports so others can be more involved with the program.
It’s easier, she said, to spread out the responsibilities, to have one person over each sport, so someone doesn’t burn out trying to do it all, she said.
“I want the program to be strong,” she said.
Susan D’Amico’s brother-in-law, who is autistic, is involved in Special Olympics. She said she’s blessed to know Bennett.
“Diana has not had a child with disabilities but takes care of each athlete as though they are her own,” D’Amico said. “Her efforts on behalf of people with special needs in this county are endless.”
Working with Special Olympics is not just about what Bennett does for the kids. She gains as much as they do, she said.
“You get a different appreciation for life and the things that are important,” she said.
The athletes, she said, accept others they way they are and pay no attention to economic status or outward appearance. They just care if they are treated well, she said.
The athletes involved gain self confidence, social interaction and sporting skills, and respect for their peers, she said. Many of the athletes don’t get a chance to be in the spotlight and Special Olympics is their opportunity to stand out, Bennett said.
She’s seen many athletes grow through the years and remembers one athlete who was very shy, hardly talking to anyone. Within a few years, she was playing basketball and arguing with the referees. Special Olympics gave her the opportunity to voice her opinion.
Bennett said her mom jokingly asked her, “What have we done?”
Special Olympics gave another athlete the confidence he needed to try out for and make his high school football team, Bennett said.
“Without that involvement I’m not sure he would have ever attempted that,” she said.
She hopes other athletes become involved because Special Olympics is a place of acceptance and a great social network.
For parents with special needs children, it’s a place to talk and support one another.
“It’s just a good resource for other parents that can help each other through so much,” she said.
Along with Special Olympics, Bennett also works with a homebound student through the school system.
Bennett said she always will work with Special Olympics in some capacity.
“After it’s been a part of your life for 30 some years, it’s kind of hard to walk away, it’s kind of my baby,” she said.
Becca Owsley can be reached at 270-505-1741 or email@example.com.
Getting to know Diana Bennett:
Favorite movies: “The Sound of Music” and “Dirty Dancing”
Travel: Australia, New Zealand, parts of Europe, Alaska
Favorite authors: Nicholas Sparks and Jodi Picoult
Dog: She has a Japanese Chin named Gizzy.
Favorite television: She enjoys dramas such as “CSI” and “Law and Order."
Family: Bennett has a large family including five siblings and 13 nieces and nephews.
Favorite games: She’s hooked on Candy Crush Saga but also does Sudoku and crossword puzzles.
Special Olympics sport she enjoys the most: Bowling because there are so many athletes involved in it.
Favorite sport: University of Kentucky basketball