It’s a big weekend for our patient Barbara Vernon of Bremerton, Wash. Not only will she turn 47 this Friday, she will celebrate by competing in the capstone of her season on Saturday (Jan. 31) during the Southwest Regional Basketball Tournament for Special Olympics Washington.

“If we medal here, we go back to state,” Vernon said, recalling the “glorious feeling” when she and the Mighty BKATS 1 took first place regionally, then brought home gold from the state Winter Games in 2013. They earned silver medals, regionally, in 2014. “I want to win!”

And by all accounts she already has.

Born with brain damage, which only allows her to function at a 9-year-old level, Vernon also suffered permanent injury to her legs after being hit by a truck just before her 13th birthday. “It’s kind of amazing what she’s been able to do,” said her mother, Jan Coe. “She is our fiery redhead – determined to succeed – who has gained confidence, learned patience and perseverance through Special Olympics.”

Vernon is a year-round participant in the Bremerton Kitsap Athletic Teams program. Member of a seven-person, co-ed skills basketball team in the winter, an individual competitor in the spring track/field softball throwing and walking events, and anchor of a four-woman bowling team in the fall. “Her energy is impressive,” Coe said. “She can wear a person out!”

In fact, Vernon’s bowling has become so accomplished that she also participates in a league, separate from Special Olympics, competing against regular teams and consistently scoring in the mid-hundreds.

“I look at this fantastic woman and see someone who has not let her intellectual and developmental challenges define her or limit her abilities,” said Barb Pool, BKAT program coordinator and association director. “Barbara is a reflection of what Special Olympics is all about – growth, teamwork and camaraderie. She told me 10 years ago, when we first met, that she couldn’t play sports – it was too overwhelming, so she was really reluctant, but she tried it! Today, she is so enthusiastic, brings her teams together under stress and not only has succeeded in athletics, but built some incredible social bonds and deep friendships.”

Whether it’s helping out her 68- and 79-year-old parents, cooking an expansive Christmas dinner, encouraging a friend on the phone, nurturing her pets, reading to the preschoolers and kindergarteners at Silverdale United Methodist Church, serving as a counselor at Camp Burton on Vashon Island, recruiting a teammate, or working in food service for Central Kitsap School District, there is no question Vernon loves to serve. “Barbara is a caregiver to the core. She has a gift at helping others whose needs are different, sometimes greater, than her own,” Coe said, highlighting an experience where she was able to connect with a fellow special-needs camper that was wheelchair-bound and unable to communicate. “No one else could reach this girl, so Barbara went over and sang to her. She has a way of knowing how to lift others.”

More than 1,000 athletes of all ages from around Western Washington will convene in Central Kitsap this weekend for a tournament like no other. The BKAT program has prepared 11 basketball teams, including Vernon’s, for this pinnacle moment.

While these aren’t traditional basketball games, Pool promises a rush. “When you watch a wonderful athlete like Barbara play in the key – passing, catching and shooting hoops – you can’t help but feel the excitement,” Pool said. “She is striving toward her personal best and never gives up.”

Vernon says she’s practiced hard and helped rally the others. “I’m ready!” she said proudly. “It will be fun, come and watch.”

Opening Ceremonies are at 8:30 a.m. in the Kitsap Sun Pavilion at the Kitsap County Fairgrounds, with games running 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Pavilion, Woodlands Elementary, Central Kitsap, Fairview and Ridgetop Jr. Highs. The event is free and open to the public.

For more details about this weekend’s games, visit Special Olympics Washington. To find out about other local special-needs opportunities, visit BKAT Sports – comprised of more than 250 athletes, 40 volunteers, 30 staff and coaches.

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