As we wind down on National Volunteer Month, we want to share a story from one of SONJ’s longtime volunteers, Della Porter. Della has served many different roles within the organization and has been instrumental in the development of many of our programs, including bowling and softball. Her dedication, commitment and enthusiasm to athletes, volunteers and families is unparalleled. She started out as a bowling scorekeeper before moving on to…. well, let’s let Della tell the story…
Those who know me know that I can talk! Especially about Special Olympics. Get me started and be prepared. So, when SONJ asked me to share the story about how and why I started volunteering with Special Olympics, I figured no problem! Piece of cake! As I sat down and started writing, I discovered this is no easy task. I’ve experienced so very, very much during my SONJ career that my fingers can’t even begin to keep up with all that is going through my mind and my memories! Where do I begin…
In 1984, one of my bowling teammates, Peggy, told our team that Special Olympics New Jersey was looking for scorekeepers at a bowling tournament for the coming Saturday and Sunday at LaMartinique Lanes in Stratford, Camden County. We all agreed to sign up and everyone said they had to work on Saturday but they would be there on Sunday. I stated that Sunday was my sister’s birthday, but I could be there on Saturday. So, on Saturday, March 31, off I went to the lanes and signed up as a scorekeeper. (Yes, score was kept manually back then, using pencils and overhead projectors, no computers). I was assigned to a pair of lanes that had five adult male bowlers that were mostly independent. I remember two specifically, Stephen and Big John. Big John was well over 6’ and about 250lbs. He would deliver his ball and run back to the ball return, bend at his waist, and thumb his nose at the return until his ball came shooting out the shaft. Stephen was younger than John and was very sweet, gentle, and helpful. One of the bowlers had trouble with recognizing which lane he was on (remember, no automatic scorers to direct the athletes), as well as determining which bowling ball was his, since they were all using solid black balls that day. Stephen guided and helped him through all three games, even though they were competing against each other.
After our three games were complete and the scores turned in, we were called to a section of the lanes to wait for awards. Later in my career I would learn that this was the award staging process. There had to be 50 or more of us all crammed into a corner watching medals being awarded. It was a warm spring day, inside an 80 lane bowling center, with a lot of people. The next thing I know Big John is slumped over my shoulders and I am holding him up. Someone from SONJ brought John to and “my guys” then received their awards. I remember thinking to myself at that time — “This is not safe. There’s no room to do this on the concourse of these lanes.” Yes coaches and spectators, this is one of the main reasons why we now do awards on the lanes!
Once my day was over, I got back into my car and went onto Route 295 North and drove over an hour to my home (295 didn’t go all the way to Trenton back then. It ended in Bordentown, and we didn’t have cell phones yet either). As soon as I arrived home, I called my sister and told her I would be at her birthday party the next day, but I would be late because I was going back to Special Olympics New Jersey’s bowling event to keep score again. And that I did! My sister, her husband and my then 9-year-old niece all came to watch. I left my name and contact information with the event director so I could be notified for next year’s event.
That was my first day with Special Olympics. My first experience with Special Olympics. I was hooked.
It was 1989 when Mike Higgins, CEO of SONJ at the time, developed the concept of the Volunteer Sport Management Teams. I was invited, and accepted, to be the Bowling Sport Director. Since the inception of this program, I am the only one who has held the director’s position for bowling. This is a distinction of which I am very proud. And, along with a lot of very dedicated volunteer committee members, have run three sectional competitions, team (including traditional and Unified) and singles competitions, and many bowling coach training sessions for the past 31 years!
Bowling used to be a Summer Games sport. Due to its growth, in 1994 bowling became a spring sport and was moved to the Spring Games. I figured, yay! Now I’m going to volunteer for softball at the 1994 games, and I did, as an announcer/scorekeeper. (anyone surprised??) SONJ then found out that softball was another sport I had long been a part of and loved. The Unified Softball League was new and they needed someone to coordinate it. I was asked if I was interested and, naturally, I said yes. Charlie Zelinsky was the Softball Sport Director and after four years of running the two leagues independent of each other, we joined them together. This allowed for the sharing of sites, umpires, equipment and times. Charlie and I then joined forces and became Co-Directors for Softball. Beginning in April, the teams played in a six week league and then played in a tournament as a part of Summer Games. I love working with Softball and, again, am so proud to be a part of it.
My career has also included coaching a local training program, The Mercer Keglers, in bowling since 1996. Believe me, I could do another whole story on the joy that has brought me. I have also coached in two World Games (1995 and 1999); two USA National Games (Team NJ softball head coach in Ames, IA in 2006 and bowling coach in Lincoln, NE in 2010); was a Unified bowling partner at the 1995 World Games in New Haven, CT (possibly my most prized possessions in life are my Silver and Bronze medals from those games); and was the Bowling Sport Commissioner when NJ hosted the USA National Games in 2014. Recently I’ve become involved with Athlete Leadership. I have received SONJ awards as a volunteer and coach. Over the last two years, I’ve had the honor of presenting an athlete for the SONJ Hall of Fame and a volunteer for Volunteer of the Year recognition. And, in 2009, I was recognized with induction into the SONJ Hall of Fame.
I’ve been asked why I do what I do and why for so long. The answer is simple really. It’s the many athletes, the coaches, the friends I’ve made, the volunteers, the SONJ staff, the area directors, all the smiles, the experiences, having my family members volunteer beside me and support me, the committees I’ve worked with and on, and the love I have felt from so many over these 36 years.
The Wizard says “A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others”.
It’s said that a person’s wealth can’t be measured by their bank account, but is measured by what’s in their heart. Thank you Special Olympics because my heart is full. I consider myself a wealthy old gal!