Hundreds of people turned out to support Special Olympics Wyoming at its annual Festival of Trees fundraiser. (Tommy Culkin, Oil City News)

CASPER, Wyo. — On Saturday, hundreds of people turned out to support Special Olympics Wyoming at the Festival of Trees, its biggest fundraiser of the year. However, in addition to raising funds, the day also served as a celebration of 50 years of the Special Olympics in Wyoming.

“This fundraiser is hugely important to us,” Special Olympics Wyoming President and CEO Jen Haines said. “It helps us support the programs and work we do year-round for every athlete in the state.

“We do sports training and competition for individuals with intellectual disabilities around the state of Wyoming. Those athletes and their families are never charged an out-of-pocket cost to play and participate.”

The night featured a live and silent auction, with items donated to the auction including Christmas trees and holiday items, golf packages, furniture, gift certificates, locally crafted art and more.

Special Olympics Wyoming will use the money raised for facility rentals, uniforms, travel, meals and much more, Haines said.

Roughly 300 people turned out to the Festival of Trees, Haines said. This is the most the fundraiser has seen in years, as the COVID-19 pandemic hurt attendance in recent years.

“Last year we kind of eased back into things, and so we’re hoping for a showing just as strong as the one we had back in 2019,” Haines said.

In total, Special Olympics Wyoming serves more than 1,600 athletes in a wide age range: everyone 8 and up.

(Tommy Culkin, Oil City News)

Each year, there are five major statewide competitions. Leading up to most of those are a series of area games, with the state divided into five areas.

Earlier in the day, Special Olympics Wyoming kicked the festivities off with its annual Teddy Bear Tea. At the family event, families could get their picture taken with Santa, enjoy arts and crafts tables, vote on their favorite of a wide assortment of Christmas trees and much more.

“We had more than 300 people come through for Teddy Bear Tea, and it was a ton of fun,” Haines said. “They voted on their favorite tree, and Hilltop Bank’s Candyland tree was voted the people’s choice winner.”

In addition to looking forward to the year to come with the fundraisers, Special Olympics Wyoming also looked back on its past, as 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the nonprofit.

Nationwide, the Special Olympics can trace its origins back to 1968. It wasn’t long before the effort toward inclusivity and friendly competition came to Wyoming.

“Our very first program was right here at Natrona County High School in 1972. It was just swimming and track and field,” Haines said with a smile. “Since then we’ve grown from barely 200 athletes to over 1,600 across 16 schools and the entire state.”

People and families looking to get involved with the Special Olympics can reach out to the nonprofit’s Casper office at 307-235-3062 or visit its website here. Haines said that the organization is not only always accepting new athletes, but is also looking for people who want to volunteer.

“The Special Olympics really promotes inclusion in the community, and provides our athletes with a great atmosphere to participate in, and also to find the confidence to be included in their community,” she said. “It started as a sports movement, but now is really about inclusivity.”