Special Olympics volunteering a true family affair

Three women, one teen girl and two men who are all family gather together, smiling.
Coaching for the Flyers is all in the family for Ellen Lubbers (front); Anna Milligan, Charlie Milligan and Monica Wangler (L to R, second row); and Chris Lubbers and Chuck Milligan (L to R, back row).

To fulfill a requirement for her high-school service project, Monica Wangler hit on a way to combine community service with her love of sports. “I was a multi-sport athlete,” she said. “I thought, well, if I can do service and sports at the same time, I’m in.”

Some 30 years later, she’s still all in as a volunteer coach with Franklin County Special Olympics. And so are several members of her family, including most of her siblings, her daughter, a niece and brother-in-law. “And we have no plans to stop,” said Wangler, who grew up the oldest of six children in the Lubbers family. “We’re actually trying to convince another sibling to join us.”

Ryan Phillips, director of Special Olympics, Community Recreation and Aquatics at the Franklin County Board of Developmental Disabilities, said the Lubbers family commitment and tenure is nothing short of amazing. “It seems like the longer that people volunteer with us, the more they begin to build their lives around the schedule,” he said. “It’s pretty cool.”

Anna Milligan was inspired by her sister’s experience and hasn’t looked back. She just hit her 20th year and is as enthusiastic as ever. “I started right after college and I was like, this is a happy place. It’s total positivity,” Milligan said. “I got so much out of the conversations – really filling my bucket while filling theirs.”

When Milligan and Wangler had children, they brought them to practices and games, too. “Some of the athletes would really enjoy pushing the kids in a stroller. It was so nice,” Wangler said. “I was just telling my husband how amazing it is that one program can offer so much family for us all.”

Of course, the Lubbers siblings also have watched plenty of Flyers athletes grow up. Wangler has been coaching Colton Showalter in swimming since he was “a little tyke,” she said. “Now he likes to point out my gray hair. I tell him he’s been around to make it that way.”

Milligan said she gets goosebumps – and a few happy tears – when she talks about the effect that Special Olympics has had on her 15-year-old daughter Charlotte, also known as Charlie. “Her life goals are surrounded by this,” Milligan said. “She wants to be a special education teacher, and I am so proud.”

And even if Charlie winds up in a different career, “she’s still found something that has such enormous meaning, and is shaping her as a human being,” Milligan said. “She’s finding and giving joy.”