Volunteers try out Parapan Am sports in Whitby

WHITBY — Doris Foden is hoping her ability to speak three languages will come in handy this summer when she volunteers for the Toronto 2015 Pan American/Parapan Am Games.

The Pickering resident has been assigned supervisor of the press box at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre in Scarborough and said she’s looking forward to meeting people from around the world.

“I’m newly retired and I think it’s time to give back to the community,” said Ms. Foden, who speaks English, French and German.

“I think it’s going to be exciting and I’m trying to get all my friends to volunteer.”

On Jan. 28, she joined 300 volunteers from across Ontario at the Abilities Centre in Whitby for Parapan Am Day. The event offered participants an opportunity to experience parasports first-hand, including wheelchair basketball, sitting volleyball and boccia.

“It’s hard but it’s really fun,” said Mary Skinner, a volunteer from Stouffville, after taking a spin around the court at the wheelchair basketball station.

“I think it’s more exciting than regular basketball and it’s just an interesting way to see what people are up against and how well they can actually become a part of these sports and they just don’t have to sit (on) the sidelines and be that forgotten person.”

The Toronto 2015 Parapan Am Games, which take place Aug 7-15, will feature 1,608 athletes from 28 countries competing in 15 sports. All sports will be Paralympic qualifiers for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

The Abilities Centre at 55 Gordon St. is the official venue for the Parapan judo and boccia events.

“Essentially, this is just an opportunity for volunteers to learn more about not only the Parapan Games but what it means to be an athlete with a disability,” said Stephanie D’Lima, co-ordinator for volunteer communications and engagement for the Toronto 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games.

“Parasport often takes a back seat, even with Olympics — you know, there’s Olympics and then the Paralympics — and I think once you actually test it out … people really get excited about it.”

Allowing volunteers to interact with one another and familiarize themselves with the sports and venues before the event is a priority for organizers, she said.

“It’s going to be quite a significant commitment during Games time for these volunteers and we just want to make sure that they’re engaged with our mission, our values, that they’re meeting other volunteers and that they’re really looking forward to seeing them again and being part of this really once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

The Abilities Centre, which opened in 2012, is a state-of-the-art, 125,000-square-foot, multi-purpose facility that houses three full basketball courts surrounded by a 200-metre track. Fully equipped and universally accessible cardio/fitness and weight rooms offer opportunities for physical activities for people of all ages and abilities.

About 100 volunteers per day will be at the facility during the Games, playing a key role in the overall success of the event, said Gabriel Shiu, manager of sport programs and development at the Abilities Centre.

“The volunteers are really the ones that have the excitement (and) generate the buzz; they’re the ones that are out there welcoming people as they come in,” he said.

For staff at the centre, Parapan Am Day also provided an opportunity to showcase the award-winning facility and raise awareness about the inclusive nature of parasports, he added.

“It’s making people aware of the sport activity opportunities that exist for people with and without disabilities and again, crossing that barrier where people aren’t saying, ‘Well, I don’t have a disability, therefore I don’t play parasport.’ It’s the other way (around); parasport is an adapted activity so that everyone can participate — emphasis on everyone.”

Pat Varney, a volunteer from Aurora, said she doesn’t know yet what her duties will be during the event but she doesn’t care.

“I’m just looking forward to being a part of it,” she said. “It’s an exciting time for our province and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Volunteers try out Parapan Am sports in Whitby