There’s one sure bet you can make during the Special Olympics World Games taking place at UCLA this week: Athletes, coaches and visitors from all over the world are going to feel the love wherever they go on campus.
As they navigate their way from the Hill to sports venues through Aug. 2, they will be seeing the smiling faces of UCLA volunteers at just about every corner and juncture along the way. That’s been the goal of staff members at the UCLA Volunteer Center, who have been working alongside their UCLA Campus Life colleagues and the world games staff since January 2014.
“We want to provide a true Bruin welcoming experience for the people who are coming to our campus,” said Shannon Regan Hickman, director of the UCLA Volunteer Center. “Our volunteers can really use their campus knowledge to help out the visitors.”
Overall, approximately 30,000 people all over Los Angeles have volunteered to work at the games, which are taking place at several venues, including UCLA. The UCLA Volunteer Center, which is coordinating Team UCLA’s efforts campuswide, estimates that nearly 1,000 Bruin students, faculty, staff, alumni and supporters are lending their time and talents to make the games a rousing success.
The response has been remarkable, said Hickman, with the number of volunteers still rising. “A lot of people are working multiple shifts, anywhere from two to 12 hours.”
The volunteer center, working in conjunction with UCLA Events, Transportation and Parking as well as UCLA Recreation, has assigned Bruins to man the streets as pedestrian traffic control, greet visitors at five campus dining halls as ambassadors and serve as general Team UCLA members — people willing to step in wherever needed.
For one volunteer, UCLA senior Gulya Tlegenova, originally from Uzbekistan, that meant helping the 10-person delegation of athletes and coaches from Kyrgyzstan find transportation to take them from an LAX hotel to Arcadia, their host city, before the start of the games.
Because of her knowledge of the language and culture, Tlegenova became the lead liaison between delegations from Kyrgyzstan and Russia and Special Olympics organizers and judges. She’s been translating rules and judges’ decisions for the delegates as well as giving the visitors the inside scoop on American culture.
“I’m happy I can smooth the process over,” said the UCLA student who’s majoring in Russian and Spanish. “I have come to call the United States my home. And this is a great way to give back. I love opportunities like this where I can pay it forward and share the knowledge and skills that I have accumulated. It gives me a lot of joy to be involved. It’s life-changing for me and these athletes, especially coming from a small country in Central Asia.”
While volunteers are serving in a myriad different roles — the world games organizers even asked for volunteers to undergo training in order to officiate at bocce ball — UCLA senior Rebekka Asher decided to contribute her talents as a makeup artist to the Miss Amazing Pageant, a four-day celebration that began Monday at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse and continues tonight with the finals.
The pageant provides an opportunity for girls and women with disabilities to build confidence and self-esteem in a supportive environment. Contestants will perform in a talent show, wear their favorite evening gowns and test their poise as they introduce themselves to the audience. You might spot them on campus proudly wearing pink sashes and a crown.
“These women and girls are just amazing people, and a chance to work with them and be a part of this symbolizes so much more,” said Asher, a math major. “Not only am I putting my own creativity into this, but I’m helping to bring out the person. It’s a combination of what’s inside them — their personality and essence — and my own little [makeup] tricks. It’s a chance for them to feel as amazing as their accomplishments.”
No matter what the event, it’s important for UCLA to be welcoming, said Nikh Bhatt, who is volunteering as part of the Special Olympics UCLA Student Group. “We’re all just really excited for a beautiful event. It’s all about the athletes. … There will be a lot of joy and memories made.”
Alissa Materman, director of executive education at UCLA Anderson School of Management, and her staff decided to volunteer as a team. They will be working together at the dining halls. They also planned to attend tennis and soccer competitions together as “fans in the stands.”
“To have an opportunity to step away and refresh is always important,” Materman said. “We’re always looking for team activities that are not only fun, but, especially in this case, we’re doing good. We want to be good hosts and ensure that everyone has a good experience. What might be easy for me might be challenging to someone else, and to help with that is very rewarding.”
Lindsay Rice, project manager at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health’s Department of Community Health Sciences, will be part of a group of 10-plus staffers who will also greeting guests at the dining halls.
“It’s about exposing ourselves and our students to people from all over the world from various backgrounds and with different special needs," Rice said. "We really want to show kindness and a willingness to be of service as UCLA community members.”
To staff an event of this magnitude, said Mick Deluca, assistant vice chancellor of campus life at UCLA, the need for volunteers has been immense. But Bruins have proven they can stand up to that challenge.
”We are all excited and taking a lot of pride in staff, faculty, students and alumni who are pitching in and doing whatever it takes,” Deluca said.