DELAND, Fla. – Every Saturday through bowling season, the lanes at Sunshine Bowling Center in DeLand are packed with athletes from the Volusia County Special Olympics bowling team.
The sound of crashing bowling pins are nearly drowned out by the roar of clapping family and friends, cheering on their athletes.
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Vanessa Stark usually shows up early, ready to greet other bowlers as they walk through the door.
“I’m a ramp bowler. Ramp bowlers are on that side,” said Stark, pointing to the far end of the building.
Stark is legally blind and has problems with her back but she said she has rarely missed any of the weekly practices since she began Special Olympics play in 2016.
“It’s fun. It’s really fun to be here,” Stark said. “We give each other high-fives. It’s so exciting to see everybody come together and have fun.”
And for more than a decade, Anna Maria Filannino has been here too. Filannino is one of the volunteer coaches, but many of the athletes consider her family.
“She’s like a mother to us, like a grandmother,” Stark said. “She bends over backwards for us all the time. If we have a bad day, she’ll even call us to cheer us up.”
But Filannino has been missing from the lanes for the last few months. Her Saturdays have been spent at home recovering from surgery.
She is missed. In fact, Stark wanted to show her appreciation by nominating Filaninno for the weekly News 6 Getting Results Award.
“Everybody here loves her,” Stark said. “She has a heart for us in the Special Olympics. She doesn’t see our disabilities. She just sees us.”
Lisa Gall centers herself on the pins and winds up.
“This is for Coach Anna,” said Gall, hurling her blue and white marbled ball down the lane. “She’s always in our hearts and minds.”
Filannino said the athletes are on her mind, too, as well as the “wonderful memories” they shared in the form of photographs.
As she sits on her couch reflecting on her life, Filannino points to the walls, tables and entertainment center where dozens of pictures look back at her. As she recalls stories from her life, guests are able to see exactly who she’s talking about. It seems no one is left out.
“Here’s my bowling team when I became head coach,” said Filannino, pointing to a photo on the wall in a spare bedroom. “These are newspaper clippings... it’s a very big part of my life.”
Filannino taught special needs students for 26 years in New York before moving to Florida, where she continued for another 18 years before retiring.
“I want to be with them. They keep me young and they keep my whole spirit going,” Filannino said. “The doctor says I can’t do any lifting or anything like that for four or six weeks. Then I can go back.”
Paula Ouimette, Special Olympics Manager of Sports Administration, said the games rely on volunteers like Filannino and more are needed.
“She’s missed more than you could possibly imagine,” Ouimette said. “We can’t wait to have her back.”
Filannino hopes to make an appearance at practice next weekend and she should be back to coaching on a regular basis soon.
“You know God is good. He’s getting me back in shape because I guess He still has work that He wants me to do,” she said.
Ouimette said she understands why Filannino wants to get back soon—volunteering is easy and rewarding beyond words.
“These athletes make us better people. If you have a couple of hours a week to donate your time, I guarantee you that you will get back more than you give out.”
Volunteering opportunities in your area can be found through the Special Olympics website.