Jake and Lauren Harkey named Special Olympics North Carolina Volunteer of the Year Award

Last Updated on September 13, 2023 1:13 pm

A High Country couple has been named 2023 Special Olympics North Carolina (SONC) Volunteer of the Year.

The award was presented to Jake and Lauren Harkey, of Watauga County, recently in Durham, North Carolina.

Special Olympics North Carolina (SONC) presented 10 2023 state-level awards honoring outstanding individuals who support Special Olympics in North Carolina, according to Keith L. Fishburne, SONC President/CEO. Awards were presented during the 2023 SONC Leadership Summit, which joined Special Olympics leaders from across the state, hosted August 18-20.

Jake and Lauren were introduced to Special Olympics more than 15 years ago, first recruited as volunteers in Cabarrus County. In the years since, they have served as coaches, Unified partners and representatives of the Law Enforcement Torch Run® for Special Olympics North Carolina. Combined, the Harkeys have coached Special Olympics athletes in five Special Olympics World Games and one Special Olympics USA Games. From cycling, to tennis, to volleyball, to Alpine skiing, they are champions of inclusion through sport.

SONC Board of Directors Chairwoman Chiquana Dancy presented the 2023 Chairwoman’s Award to Appalachian Ski Mountain and French Swiss Ski College of Watauga County. Forty-five years ago, the first Special Olympics Southeast U.S. Winter Games were held at Appalachian Ski Mountain, under the leadership of Alpine skiing expert Jim Cottrell. His business, French Swiss Ski College, became a training ground for ski instructors to learn how to assist Special Olympics athletes from North Carolina and five nearby states. Under the ownership of Brad and Jennifer Moretz, Appalachian Ski Mountain and French Swiss Ski College continue the tradition of hosting Special Olympics events each year.

Award Winners:

  • Athlete of the Year: Lorenzo Stancil, Franklin County
  • Frank Starling Coach of the Year: Linda Stell, Guilford County
  • Family of the Year: Stroud Family, Iredell County
  • Coordinator of the Year: Allison Kennedy, Rutherford County
  • Billy Quick Leadership Award: Jacob Huffman, Gaston County
  • Volunteer of the Year: Jake and Lauren Harkey, Watauga County
  • Jim Long Commitment to Excellence: Representative Donna White, Johnston County
  • Outstanding Organization: Surry County Parks and Recreation, Surry County
  • Chairwoman’s Award: Appalachian Ski Mountain and French Swiss Ski College, Watauga County
  • President’s Award: Celeste Frazier, Lincoln County

The 2023 SONC Athlete of the Year Award was presented to Lorenzo Stancil of Franklin County. More than 14 years ago, Stancil began competing in athletics and has grown to become a leader in the Special Olympics movement. In 2023, Stancil became an SONC Global Messenger and now serves as a spokesperson on behalf of the organization. Stancil encourages fellow athletes to maintain healthy habits through his involvement as a certified SONC Health Messenger and through Partner Up Power Up, SONC’s virtual fitness training program. He shares his involvement with his family members, who are dedicated volunteers and have recently become certified coaches.

The 2023 SONC Coach of the Year Award was presented to Linda Stell of Guilford County. Serving as a head athletics coach for nearly two decades in Guilford County, Stell embodies what it means to be a role model for Special Olympics athletes. She has represented Special Olympics in countless events, including two Special Olympics USA Games, SONC Summer Games and Special Olympics Guilford County Spring Games.

The 2023 SONC Family of the Year Award was presented to the Stroud family of Iredell County. Special Olympics Iredell County athlete Chase Stroud began competing with Special Olympics in 2016. His parents, Susan and Randy Stroud, are involved as coaches, volunteers, partners and Unified partners, individuals without intellectual disabilities who train and compete alongside Special Olympics teammates. Under Randy’s leadership, the Special Olympics Iredell County basketball team won two gold medals at the SONC Summer Games in 2018 and 2023. Susan serves on the local steering committee in addition to coaching bocce and swim. Her grandson, Evan, is involved as a Unified partner.

The 2023 SONC Coordinator of the Year Award was presented to Allison Kennedy of Rutherford County. Since middle school, Kennedy has been actively involved in the Special Olympics movement. Now as a schoolteacher, she encourages student involvement through Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools®, a strategy to activate youth, engage educators and promote school communities of acceptance and inclusion where all young people are agents of change. Mobilizing a completely inactive local program, she helped expand the local program to offer year-round programming in seven sports. Leveraging financial support from local organizations, including the Western North Carolina Bridge Foundation, she has secured substantial funding to ensure all athletes have the ability to participate. She continues the legacy of involvement within her own family, with three young sons already active as Unified partners.     

The 2023 SONC Billy Quick Leadership Award was presented to Jacob Huffman of Gaston County during the 2023 SONC Summer Games Opening Ceremony on June 2. He serves locally and at the state level as a volunteer, as a Global Messenger and as chair of the SONC Athlete Council, which meets quarterly to provide input to the SONC president/CEO on issues in the movement. During the pandemic, he encouraged his fellow athletes to stay healthy and connected through SONC’s Partner Up Power Up program, advocating for their well-being.   

The 2023 SONC Jim Long Commitment to Excellence Award was presented to Representative Donna White of Johnston County. Serving in the North Carolina Representative House of Representatives, White has led the effort for the State of North Carolina to allocate funding to support the mission of Special Olympics. In her home district of Johnston County and across the state, she supports Special Olympics athletes in achieving their sports dreams.

The 2023 SONC Outstanding Organization Award was presented to Surry County Parks and Recreation of Surry County. Their department provides Special Olympics athletes with opportunities to train and compete in basketball, bocce, cheerleading, golf, softball and swimming. In continuing to enhance offerings and community support, they help to implement Partner Up Power Up and Special Olympics Young Athletes initiatives within Surry County. In 2022, the department hosted a golf tournament, which raised $37,000 for Special Olympics Surry County. Since 2012, Daniel White has served as local program coordinator for Special Olympics Surry County through his role as director for Surry County Parks and Recreation. 

SONC President/CEO Keith L. Fishburne presented the 2023 SONC President’s Award to Celeste Frazier of Lincoln County. Introduced to SONC in her college years, Frazier first served as a volunteer and coach. Now, for nearly three decades, she has served as local program coordinator for Special Olympics Lincoln County. By adding new sports, including bocce, equestrian, swimming and volleyball, the local program has expanded to provide opportunities for more athletes to be involved. She partners with local organizations to amplify the impact of Special Olympics, including the offering of a summer music camp for Special Olympics athletes.  

About Special Olympics North Carolina
Since 1968, the organization has used the transformative power of sports to improve the lives of children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Nearly 40,000 athletes in North Carolina inspire thousands of coaches, sports officials, local program committee members and event organizers involved in Special Olympics statewide. SONC offers year-round training and competition in 20 Olympic-type sports on local and state levels as well as health and wellness initiatives to improve the health status and increase access to community health resources for individuals with intellectual disabilities. Youth become agents of change through Unified Champion Schools, an education and sports-based program created by Special Olympics to build an inclusive environment among youth with and without intellectual disabilities as well as empower them to become youth leaders and create change in their community. Engage with us on TwitterInstagramFacebook and YouTube.

Photos: Special Olympics North Carolina

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