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Special Olympics sports not just fun for athletes

Volunteer coaches say they keep returning to the program because of the smiles. Yountville resident Leslie Caccamese Hill said she was looking to do volunteer work that didn’t involve...

Volunteer coaches Sherry Breitigam of Yountville, far right, and Lauren Sherman of Napa talk about the great play of athlete Noah Garcia during Special Olympics Bocce Ball practice Tuesday evening at Veterans Park in Yountville. (Photo by Kim Beltran)

Yountville resident Leslie Caccamese Hill said she was looking to do volunteer work that didn’t involve sitting behind a desk when she saw a blurb in a local newsletter about Special Olympics needing volunteer coaches.

It was Bocce Ball season a year ago and even though she didn’t know how to play the game, she was drafted into the coaching ranks.

“I started with bocce, then track, then we went to the Summer Games,” Caccamese said this week. “Then came softball and soccer.”

She took a winter break, skipping bowling and basketball, but was back this year for bocce, even recruiting a new coach, Yountville’s Sherry Breitigam.

“We probably put in like over 100 hours of volunteer time with the program because once you get started, it’s like, wow! It’s addictive  because it’s fun,” said Caccamese. 

Napa County, under the umbrella of Special Olympics Northern California, offers free training and competition for Special Olympics athletes in eight sports, including swimming.

According to the Special Olympics Northern California website, its athletes are children and adults with intellectual disabilitites (ID), a term used to describe limitations in cognitive functioning and other skills, including communication, learning and self-care. Down syndrome and autism two of the more  commonly known forms of ID. 

The Special Olympics athletes must be able to get themselves to and from practices and events. Most are transported by parents or caregivers, some of whom also volunteer as coaches.

“I think I get more out of it than he does,” Napa resident Ben Beltran said of his son, Philip, who was playing bocce ball in Yountville on Tuesday night.

Beltran said he has coached his son in Special Olympics baseball for 10 years but he also helps out during the other sports seasons as needed.

Lauren Sherman of Napa said she has been a volunteer coach for two years. Like Caccamese and Breitigam, Sherman loves working with the Special Olympics athletes.

She’s also aware of the need for quality volunteers.

“When they need your help, it’s hard to not say yes,” Sherman said. “Because otherwise, the programs can’t happen.”

During an interview before Tuesday night’s bocce practice, Sherman and Caccamese laughed as they recalled their first year coaching soccer together and neither one knowing a thing about the game.

“You learn,” they said, simultaneously.

As they talk and laugh, the bocce athletes start showing up, many greeting the coaches and each other with warm hugs and big smiles.

“You don’t want to feel like people can’t participate because there’s not enough helpers,” Sherman said, “and as you can see it’s, like, a lot of love.”

In addition to sports, Special Olympics Northern California provides health and leadership programs for more than 17,000 children and adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

Anyone interested in volunteering with Special Olympics can visit

For general information about Special Olympics Northern California go to