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Zita Pooran, right, has been a volunteer with Special Olympics since her daughter, Nerissa, 37, started to participate almost 30 years ago.Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Zita Pooran says you can really get hooked on volunteering. As a parent volunteer for Special Olympics Canada for more than 30 years, the Toronto resident has done everything from fundraising and co-ordinating swim and track meets to being team manager for the swim team when it competed in Bogota.

“People ask me about it all the time once they find out what I do,” says Pooran. “Special Olympics has been promoting awareness within the community and the values of being involved in an organization like this. People are becoming more interested in what Special Olympics is all about.”

That’s reflected in an increase of more than 25 per cent in volunteer registration for Special Olympics Canada over the past five years. Pooran, whose daughter is a Special Olympics athlete, says that even with the challenges that volunteering can bring, it’s incredibly rewarding.

“On competition days, it’s really satisfying when you see the athletes giving their best, trying to achieve what so many of us take for granted,” says Pooran. “Seeing how my daughter, Nerissa, is so inspired through her sports encourages us as a family to keep supporting her and other athletes in anything that they do.”

Pooran became involved with Special Olympics because she had two daughters with special needs. Her older daughter, Natalie, passed away six years ago, but Nerissa, now 37, still competes in track and swimming. Nerissa was the first Special Olympics athlete inducted into the Toronto Sport Hall of Honour.

“When we started we were young parents who were naive about what you can achieve through playing competitive sports with Special Olympics,” says Pooran. “We were just trying to promote a healthy lifestyle. It wasn’t easy for Nerissa because the co-ordination was very challenging for her. But she was determined to improve her skills and physical fitness.

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Veteran Nerissa Pooran, a track athlete by summer and indoor swimmer by winter, was the first Special Olympics athlete named to the Toronto Sport Hall of Honour.Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

“From that, she became very motivated and persevered toward competition. That’s where the volunteering came in. We volunteered for every meet and opportunity to participate.”

Pooran’s experience isn’t unusual. Travis Maher believes Special Olympics is a life-changing opportunity, not only for the athletes, but for anyone who gets involved.

Maher of Mount Pearl, Nfld., is the Special Olympics head coach of soccer for Newfoundland and Labrador, regional floor hockey coach and a mentor for athlete Mark Peddle in the athlete mentorship program. He’ll be in Antigonish, N.S., this month for the Special Olympics Canada Summer Games.

Maher has been volunteering since 2009, taking over as soccer coach when the previous coach, his father, couldn’t continue. An aunt who was a Special Olympics athlete for many years inspired him and his father to join. He attributes the recent increase in volunteers to word getting out about the program and the fulfillment that comes from working with people with special needs.

“You could be having the worst day of your life and five minutes into practice, it’s the best day of your life,” Maher says. “You can’t help but leave with a smile on your face. It’s one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.”

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Coach Travis Maher, right, a mentor to athlete Mark Peddle, left, in addition to a soccer and a hockey coach, says he’s continually amazed by what Special Olympians can achieve. ‘There are no limits.’Handout

Maher says he prepares these athletes for tournaments the same way he would any athlete in any sport, training them hard with high expectations.

“One big thing I’ve learned through Special Olympics is that they’re the same as anybody else,” Maher says. “If you push them, they can do it. I’ve pushed and pushed to try and find the limits of these athletes, and there are no limits. They can do the same as anybody else.”

He finds the biggest challenge is getting them to first trust in a team and work within a team, because many of the athletes come from homes where they’re just on their own. As a coach, all he wants is to help them succeed.

“When the game is over and they’ve succeeded, it’s like they won the World Cup,” says Maher. “They jump into your arms. That’s it right there! But you’re in this for thick or thin. I’ve also had them fall into my arms crying when we’ve lost the game. It tears your heart out. When you know they’ve given everything they have, you’ve just got to get them to hold their head up high and go on to the next game.”

While volunteering takes a significant amount of time, especially going into a national Games, he feels it’s worth every minute to help the athletes reach their personal bests — which in team sports is just doing better than they have in the past.

“In 2010 in London, [Ont.], they finished seventh overall,” Maher says of his soccer team at the national Games. “In 2014 in Vancouver, they finished with a silver medal, second in the country. I’ve got my work cut out for me this time to do a personal best at the nationals in Antigonish because now they’ve got to win gold.”

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