It was an easy decision for Abbotsford resident Donna Bilous to make, and that choice has led her on a path that has taken her all around the world and now has earned her a spot in the Abbotsford Sports Hall of Fame.
But when she was pregnant with her youngest daughter Paige Norton, she likely never knew that through years of hard work and dedication she would become a key figure in the Special Olympics community.
Bilous said when her doctor told her that her daughter was set to be born with Down syndrome she knew Special Olympics would be in her family’s future. She had already spent years involved in her two older sons’ sports journeys, volunteering in high profile roles with the Abbotsford Minor Hockey Association, local lacrosse and speed skating.
She never doubted her ability to be able to raise and care for a child with special needs.
“Even when Paige was born the doctor asked me if I was keeping her,” she recalled. “He said, ‘Donna, I’m sorry but you would be surprised, like 50 per cent of parents [in this situation] leave their children behind.’”
But Bilous knew her daughter had the potential to thrive.
“We were a sports family and knew that Special Olympics would give her a place where she could belong,” she said. “It could allow her to excel in sports even with a disability. We wanted to give her every opportunity we could.”
Paige desperately wanted to follow in her older brother’s footsteps. She lived in ice rinks and on sports fields as a child, and when her brother began getting involved in speed skating she followed. Bilous made it happen, eventually becoming an official and a coach for the Special Olympics speed skating team in Abbotsford and B.C.
“I fell in love with the sport and coaching became a passion,” she said. “We just got more and more opportunities as Paige continued to develop.”
Bilous has now coached with Team Canada at four Special Olympics World Games.
Her work has garnered a number of awards – in 2011 and 2017, she was Special Olympics BC’s Howard Carter Award recipient as coach of the year, and she was named Special Olympics Canada’s female coach of the year for 2017.
Paige recently won Special Olympics BC’s 2017 Athletic Achievement Award after winning a gold medal and achieving a personal best in the 1,000m race and claiming a silver medal in the 500m event at the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria.
Bilous said she gets as much out of her involvement with Special Olympics as they do.
“When I started coaching, it was all about Paige. But, within my second Games as a coach, I came to realize the impact I could have on individuals who didn’t have the same type of family support she has,” she said. “Not all of our athletes have the type of supportive family she does. The satisfaction that you get from building these athletes confidence and independence is inspiring. The athletes work so hard for you, and it means so much to know that I can help give them more self-worth.”
She said there are challenges with coaching Special Olympics athletes but the results are rewarding.
“The instruction can be very repetitive and it can take many steps to get there but they’re so dedicated, work so hard and are so determined.”
Bilous said the support from the Abbotsford community and all across Canada for Special Olympics athletes continues to grow.
“From when I started there is so much more awareness,” she said. “We were recently invited to the Vaisakhi Track and Field Meet event for example, and I think people are realizing we are a sports organization with hundreds of dedicated coaches, volunteers and athletes. We always have work to do because some people are uncomfortable with our athletes, but there has been so much growth in our programming and the way we are accepted in the community.”
She said she encourages any parent who has a child with special needs to get involved in the Special Olympics community.
“It’s a place where kids belong,” she said. “The friendships and sense of belonging they get from this is so beneficial. When you have a parent who isolates their child it isn’t good. Paige has had her life enriched both physically and socially because of her involvement.”
As for the induction, Bilous said it’s an honour to join some of Abbotsford’s sporting legends.
“I’m thrilled and extremely humbled to be inducted,” she said. “It’s such a huge honour, and it’s great for Special Olympics. I think that’s the biggest thing that comes out of it. It’s a great chance to raise our profile and recognize us as an organization in the community.”
Bilous, who has also worked for the past 39 years as a registered nurse throughout the Lower Mainland, said her career highlight was seeing her daughter win her first gold medal in speed skating in 2009.
“It was so rewarding to see all of her hard work pay off,” she said. “Just the feeling of belonging and self-worth I’ve seen her gain from her experience as an athlete has been amazing.”
Bilous officially enters the ASHOF on Saturday. Tickets are still available for the event, and can be purchased Hub Motor Service prior to Saturday or at the door on the day of the event. Cost is $60 per ticket, or $450 for a table of eight.