Special Olympics Manitoba awards Interlake resident with medal

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Special Olympics Manitoba has recognized Leona Johnson from Gimli for her leadership and initiative with the 50th Anniversary Commemorative award.

Johnson started the Pee Wee program, a gymnastics physical education activity, with Special Olympics. The program, now called Active Start, began in Manitoba and grew to become a national and an international favourite among Special Olympics chapters.

Many others including SOM staff and Panthers Gymnastics Club coach, Pat Middleton, were very progressive and instrumental in getting the program started under Johnson’s leadership. Both Johnson and Middleton worked with special education and were enthusiastic about the possibilities.

Keeping with the fundamentals of SOM to enhance the quality of life for participants through development of physical and social skills, the program focuses on physical education at an early age. While the city and province offered community education and resources like speech therapy, Johnson noted there was no opportunity for younger children with an intellectual disability to learn basic, gross and sports skills.

So, in 1983, they began the Pee Wee program for two and three-year olds who were already walking and could start early movement techniques. One day a week they held gymnastics class and that expanded to another day a week for swimming.

Johnson acknowledges that the program has inspired confidence, healthy living and a lifelong love of physical activity in participants.

Medals are limited, but of approximately 20 provincial nominations for categories across the country, Johnson received the Builder award and fellow nominee and athlete, Erik Anderson of Selkirk received the Champion award.

The award was presented to Johnson at the annual Winnipeg Wine Festival Inspire gala dinner and auction on May 2.

Dan Johnson, Leona’s husband, was the first Executive Director of Special Olympics Manitoba and shares in her passion for special education.

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