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ONE OF the driving forces in the Special Olympics movement is the passion of parents like Kathy and Marc Edenzon. Kathy was an All-America swimmer at Alabama in 1979 and '80 when she volunteered to help a Special Olympics bowling team. After school she got a job in therapeutic recreation and continued to organize Special Olympics activities. Marc volunteered as a coach while majoring in special education at Rutgers (class of '78) and later became the training director for Special Olympics New Jersey. The two met at a conference in 1986, married four years later and eventually settled in New Jersey.
Ten years ago, a neighbor asked Marc to talk with a couple whose newborn son had Down syndrome. "They were really pretty broken up about it," Kathy says of the parents. "When Marc talked to the father, he said, 'There's nothing to talk about. We're not keeping him.'" It didn't take long for the Edenzons to decide to adopt the child. "I often say if we had to buy a sofa, Marc and I would be close to divorce court," says Kathy. "When we heard about Zachary, we looked at each other and we knew."
The Edenzons, parents of two children without special needs, Alexandra Jo (or A.J.), 14, and Michael, 12, adopted Zachary when he was five weeks old. Because of their involvement with special-needs kids, Kathy and Marc knew the importance of getting Zach into early-intervention programs to work on his motor skills and speech.
Like many children with Down syndrome, Zachary has speech apraxia, a condition that hinders a person from producing the correct word. For example, instead of calling his brother Michael, Zachary calls him Cul. Physically he has low muscle tone, which slows his learning of new skills.
It was when he began participating in Special Olympics, at age eight, that Zachary's world broadened outside his family. He began initiating interaction with other kids, something he rarely did before, and found ways to participate in athletics, even if it was only kicking a soccer ball or dribbling a basketball. "His peers motivate him," says Kathy, who still coaches Special Olympics swimmers. "If you put him in a situation with other athletes, he gets it."
President of Special Olympics New Jersey since 1995, Marc proudly displays the athletic triumphs of his youngest son along a wall of his office in Lawrenceville. The centerpiece is a photo of Zach with a big grin on his face, receiving a medal at his first New Jersey Games, in 2007. During this summer's state competition, a large group of Special Olympics athletes were treated to a Trenton Thunder minor league baseball game. "When I saw him [at the ballpark], he gave me a hug and a kiss," says Kathy, "and then he pushed me away and said, 'Team.' He was basically like, It's good to see you Mom, but I'm with my team."
That's just one of the ways in which Zach has become more social and self-confident. "It's his way to grow up," says Kathy. "This is his team, his uniform, his competition. I think it helps him feel more like his sister and brother."