SHERIDAN — The first time Angel Yager saw her son win a gold medal in Special Olympics, the joy on his face as he stood on the podium and received his award was the most she’d ever seen.
That image of joy would have been enough, she said, but then she looked around the crowd and saw people — many who didn’t even know her son — with tears in their eyes and looks of joy on their faces, too.
“Special Olympics is so honest,” Yager said. “It is so honest and real to see a disabled athlete be able to run, swim, horseback ride, ski and stand on an Olympic podium to get a medal and know they are as important as anyone else.”
Kaleb Yager was 11 years old when he began participating in Special Olympics. He is now 13, and Angel Yager has become not only a Special Olympics mom but a coach, as well. She does everything she can to support the organization that means so much to her son. Her daughter and Kaleb’s twin sister, Katelyn, works as an assistant coach.
Saturday, the community of Sheridan will get a chance to support local Special Olympic athletes, as well, at the 21st annual Festival of Trees. An event that pairs the joy of Special Olympics with the joy of Christmas, the Festival of Trees is a key fundraiser that helps pay for uniforms, equipment and travel expenses involved in getting Sheridan athletes to Special Olympics events around the state.
Local businesses and organizations buy trees — both real and artificial — and decorate them in various themes. This year there is a cowboy tree, a craft tree, a cookie cutter tree and a tree molded into the shape of a snowman, amongst many other unique creations.
The trees, as well as carvings, wreaths and ornaments, will be auctioned off at the event, which includes a cocktail hour and dinner catered by Killy’s Deli. There will also be bucket raffles, door prizes and a variety of gift items for purchase. Trees can be viewed from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at the Sheridan Inn. Dinner and auctions will begin at 5:30 p.m.
For the first time ever, group tables have been purchased and donated so that Special Olympics athletes can attend the event. At least 10 of those athletes will head to Jackson Hole this winter to compete in snow shoeing, cross country skiing and downhill skiing.
Kaleb is looking forward to the games, as always. He skis, bowls and plays basketball in year-round Special Olympics events.
“I was skiing so fast, with racing, to get a medal, the golden one!” Kaleb said, recounting last winter’s games.
Kaleb has low- to mid-functioning autism, Angel Yager said, but he excels in his Olympic sports.
He said he likes to get strikes in bowling, make baskets in basketball and ski as fast as he can down snowy hills. He said one of the most important aspects of Special Olympics is making friends.
Last year, Kaleb got to carry the Special Olympics torch in Sheridan.
“I got to carry the Special Olympic torch down Main Street from the library to the park,” he said.
When asked how that made him feel, he didn’t have any words. He put his arm into the air, pumped his fist and beamed.
On Thursday, Kaleb spent the day helping set up for the Festival of Trees. He said it was important for people to decorate and buy trees “because it is for Christmas!”
And, Kaleb said, Christmas means celebrating the birth of baby Jesus and giving gifts so family and friends can feel happy and loved.