Helping others is in her blood.
For 50 years, Elyse Garcia has been giving her heart and soul to the athletes and families of Special Olympics Southern California (SOSC). She began volunteering at the age of 12.
In 1969, Garcia’s mother, Betty Nordholm, launched the Special Olympics Long Beach chapter with two sports and 27 athletes, one of whom was Carol, Elyse’s sister. Carol competed while Garcia, her parents, and her older sister Lesley volunteered in various capacities.
This family commitment carried into the next generation. Garcia met her husband Jerry when he came to coach basketball at SOSC; their daughters, Elizabeth and Rachel, started helping when they were very young. Now grown, both women continue to assist the organization.
Born and raised in Long Beach, Garcia attended Long Beach Unified schools and completed her AA at Long Beach City College. She stayed in the area, earning her BA, MPA, and MS at Cal State Long Beach. Now the Community Service Supervisor for the Parks, Recreation and Marine Department in Long Beach, Garcia has worked for the city for 38 years.
“I really love this city and have been very happy here,” she commented.
As a child, Garcia was engulfed in the supportive environment of the families at SOSC, unaware that the outside world sometimes operated differently. When she grew older, Garcia witnessed the mistreatment of some special needs kids at school. It was at that point, she said, that she decided to work with the population and “make a difference in the lives of my sister’s friends.”
At 51, Lorna Murakami is still active as an athlete in SOSC. Her Special Olympics career started with bowling when she was in high school at Millikan. Murakami said she liked the friendly SOSC environment and commented that Garcia and her mom were always supportive, whether they were coaching teams or cheering for Carol. Murakami described Garcia as “very nice and polite and very involved.”
David Saunders, a participant in SOSC swimming, basketball, snowboarding and softball, also recounted a history of positive interactions with Garcia.
“She’s amazing and very generous and has a huge heart,” Saunders said. “I’m very appreciative of what she has done.”
David’s father, Jim Saunders, is entering his 19th year of coaching under Garcia’s leadership. He praised her down-to-earth, relaxed nature and said she is someone who is very easy to be around.
“I look forward to working with her for many more years,” Jim Saunders said.
“Elyse is like the pilot of Apollo 11, strap in and ride the wild ride,” said Mike Kimmel, a coach at SOSC for more than 32 years and now the team sport coordinator. “She expected and handled challenges at every turn, yet she always had time to celebrate the joy of her athletes competing.”
Garcia has been the SOSC Area Director since her mother stepped down in 1996. She now manages a program of more than 200 athletes and a wide range of sports that includes rugby, rowing, swimming and skiing. She said that, over the years, she has personally worked with a few thousand athletes. Although Garcia no longer coaches, she still volunteers about 20 hours per week, handling the daily business of the organization.
“I oversee a tremendous group of volunteers who each do the work of 20,” Garcia said humbly.
Terri Eggers, a longtime friend and co-worker, described Garcia as a quiet warrior.
“She knows almost each and every athlete and their stories and truly cares about them outside of their sports,” Eggers said. “Elyse really walks the walk. I think a lot of the people who volunteer at Special Olympics are there because of her actions and kindness.”