BRADENTON -- Sue Fitzgerald got involved in Special Olympics through her old job about 40 years ago.
Since then, she has volunteered in various roles and touched the lives of so many athletes.
It's why the Manatee County Commission proclaimed Tuesday Sue Fitzgerald Day to honor her service to the community's Special Olympians.
Fitzgerald, the Special Olympics county coordinator and Area 9 Program Director, said she found out Monday what was going to happen at Tuesday's meeting.
It was a total surprise.
"I said something to one of my other volunteers, my backup as county coordinator, and she said, 'How did you find out?'" said Fitzgerald, who is the only person to receive a volunteer pin for 40 years of service. "I said, 'You know me, I dig. I went on the county commissioners (website), and I pulled up the agenda.'"
There are roughly 15,000 Special Olympic athletes in Florida, and Fitzgerald oversees about 215 in Manatee County.
She's also in charge of Area 9, which encompasses Manatee, Sarasota, DeSoto, Charlotte, Lee and Collier counties.
Fitzgerald didn't take all
the credit for her long career of service.
"I am very fortunate that I have some very good volunteers that back me up on a regular basis," Fitzgerald said. "Without them, I couldn't do what I have done. Our county is all volunteers. Some of the counties have paid people. But we are all totally volunteered, and we're more like a family."
As a volunteer for so many years, Fitzgerald has watched Special Olympics grow. She said there is more training now.
Fitzgerald doesn't have any kids of her own, but calls all the athletes she has helped her children.
Fitzgerald's right hand locally is Pam Fazio, the assistant to the county coordinator and Area 9 Training Director.
Fazio said she has known Fitzgerald for 17½ years. According to Fazio, Fitzgerald goes above and beyond the call of duty.
"She doesn't just volunteer for Special Olympics with the athletes," Fazio said. "At her church, she has a special needs Sunday school for the athletes. She takes the athletes to doctors when they need to go to the doctor. I mean, anything."
What has kept Fitzgerald involved over the years has been the Special Olympians themselves.
"It's the athletes," Fitzgerald said. "Some of them, I've known since the time when they were 8 years old. Now they're in their 40s and late 30s, some of them, and to see what they've accomplished in that time is what keeps me going. And there's so few outlets for persons with intellectual disabilities."