Harrison woman puts the ‘special’ in Special Olympics
Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series that features Alle-Kiski Valley people and the notable things they do.
Melanie Bollinger has trained basketball and track and field champions for two decades.
The Buffalo Township resident, along with her husband, Bo, and friend, Mary Smider, operate a Special Olympics Allegheny County training site in Harrison.
Bollinger, 47, graduated from Clarion University in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in biology.
She got involved with Special Olympics that year while working as a residential care worker for Family Services of Western Pennsylvania.
“You have different group homes with special needs clients and you take care of them,” she said. “I worked in an all male group home, and they like to get out.”
Bollinger and the clients would see Special Olympic games that were held in Sharpsburg, and she was inspired to start a training site closer to home.
“There was such a need in our area,” Bollinger said. “There was nothing close. After going (to Sharpsburg) for a few years, I decided I’d like to do my own training site and coach these athletes.”
The Natrona Heights site was founded in 1998. They train weekly at the Allegheny Valley YMCA and Highlands Elementary School (formerly Grandview Elementary) from January through May.
Bollinger said they lead between 15 and 20 athletes a year.
Basketball training starts in January and lasts about eight weeks. At the end, the different Allegheny County training sites compete against each other. Track and field follows the same format.
“They’re just so genuine and so loving,” Bollinger said about the athletes. “They just love you no matter what. It’s so rewarding to see them practice and see them at competitions.
“It’s so rewarding. They get physically active, and they’re just so proud of their medals.”
She said they had bowling competitions for awhile, but that was cut due to expenses and lack of participation. The Bollingers plan to look into adding soccer.
Melanie and Bo Bollinger were high school sweethearts. They both graduated from Highlands High School in 1989 and have been married 26 years.
Their three children occasionally help out at the Natrona Heights training site. The oldest daughter, Sydney, recently started getting involved with fundraisers for the Special Olympics at Penn State University.
Melanie Bollinger said growing up in the Highlands School District taught her the importance of volunteering and giving back to the community.
“The people are great,” she said. “It seems like the community always comes together if something happens. I just feel like giving back to the community is a great thing.”
More information about Special Olympics Allegheny County is available at www.so-ac.org.
Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-871-2367, [email protected] or via Twitter .