A tangled myriad of brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews can lead to complete and utter chaos for some. For others, however, this tightly woven patchwork of family blankets them in unity, support, and a sense of belonging. This is the case for Larry Doherty and Maureen Blees, a brother and sister who established and currently coordinate the Oxford Special Olympics program.
Born in the Bronx in a family comprised of seven daughters and one son, Larry Doherty and Maureen “Mo” Blees moved to Connecticut during their early adulthoods. Blees’ inspiration to become involved with Special Olympics was primarily from her daughter, Kimmy, who was born with an intellectual disability. Kimmy participated in the Waterbury Special Olympics program in the early 1980’s until Blees was encouraged to create a program for Oxford. Since its formation in 1984, the Oxford program currently has 80 athletes and 40 Unified Partners (partners without intellectual disabilities that play alongside the athletes)
“The program just started getting bigger and bigger,” said Blees. “We kept meeting more people and we kept growing.”
The Oxford program offers a variety of sports to its participants including aquatics, alpine skiing, bowling, cycling, cross country skiing, golf, snowshoeing, track and field, and volleyball. Blees serves as the programs local coordinator and oversees the operations and management, but she has been able to turn to her family for ardent support. Between Blees, Doherty, and their six other siblings, there are a combined 18 nieces and nephews who have been involved with Oxford Special Olympics.
“At any given point every one of them has coached, volunteered, or been a special partner,” said Doherty. “Mo’s not shy about asking anybody to do anything.”
Doherty himself has been working alongside his sister since 1986. His unofficial title is the sports coordinator and he attends nearly every practice, handles registration, and works on the programs website and Facebook page.
In addition to Blees, Doherty, and all their nieces and nephews, there is another individual who plays an instrumental role in their programs operations. Linda McKane serves as the programs treasurer and handles all the finances, thank you letters, insurance, facilities, and other tedious paperwork. Although she is not related by blood, Blees considers her a part of the family.
“We are a team of three,” said Blees. “No one person could do this alone. Our program would not be near as big or successful without all three of us working together.”
In fact, Blees considers the entire program to be a close knit family. They host many team gatherings such as ice cream socials and pizza parties and encourage that the siblings of athletes attend as well. For Blees, the legacy of the program lies in their hands.
“We are truly family orientated; we want family members here,” said Blees. “The way we look at some of the athletes’ siblings is that they are the coaches of tomorrow. We aren’t going to be around forever and we want our program to be around forever. “
Rebecca Brookshire, the Program and Volunteer Coordinator with the Northwest Region of Special Olympics Connecticut, has known Blees and Doherty for over four years and can vouch for the familial environment of the Oxford program.
“They always continue to look for new opportunities for their athletes and do what’s best for them,” said Brookshire. “They truly make their athletes feel a part of the team and as a ‘family’ by always sporting their bright green uniforms to inviting friends and& families to their practices.”
Many of the athletes in the program have etched poignant and forever lasting memories in Blees and Doherty’s hearts. One memory they recall was of an athlete named Sean who had Down syndrome and was legally blind. He earned a medal at a skiing competition and took the microphone during the awards presentation and stated: “I won this for my dad”. Sean’s father had been slowly dying from cancer.
“He strived so hard so that he could win just so that he could bring it home to his dad,” said Blees.
Most of the time, however, the athletes are ecstatic just to be participating in sport regardless of if they win a medal or not.
“We’re not here to win medals,” said Doherty. “The majority of our athletes don’t care what medals they get. They’re able to hang out with their friends, and that’s the best thing to see.”
For 30 years Mo Blees and Larry Doherty have been providing these opportunities for individuals with intellectual disabilities and it has always been in a family-like atmosphere. Contrary to the stereotypical perception of brother and sister rivalry, Blees and Doherty have exhibited extraordinary cooperation throughout their entire life.
“There’s normally sibling rivalry, but we are actually friends,” said Doherty. “It is kind of strange, but we are. She’s one of my best friends.”
Whether it’s a coach, volunteer, athlete, sibling, or friend, everyone is welcomed with open arms into the Oxford program.
“It’s just such a great organized family oriented program,” said Brookshire. “No one can feel out of place when they’reir on Oxford’s team.”
For more information about the Oxford Special Olympics program, please visit OxfordSO.org.