Olina Nelson decided while growing up in foster care that she never wanted to have children.
Looking back, she laughs at herself and feels humbled by the life she leads today.
Nelson has four children, each of them with special needs, and many more “babies” she’s come to love as a volunteer sports coach for children and adults with physical or mental disabilities.
“This is my passion,” Nelson said.
“Just as I love my own babies, they’re all my babies. I love to see them happy and feeling like their lives are as normal as possible.”
Nelson is employed with the Biloxi Parks and Recreation Department. Seven years ago, Nelson was one of the first to volunteer to help those with special needs play sports and spend time together, Director Cheryl Bell said.
“She doesn’t have to volunteer, but she does it gladly and she works tirelessly,” Bell said.
The term “special needs” is an umbrella term for many types of conditions: a physical or medical condition; emotional or behavioral problems; blindness; deafness; and learning disabilities.
Nelson said she had enrolled one of her sons in soccer but it wasn’t a good experience for him. The negative experience fed her desire to make a difference in the lives of her children and others with disabilities.
It takes patience, and Bell said Nelson has lots of it, in part because she’s a mother of special needs children.
Nelson’s daughter Kira, 18, has emotional disabilities and ADHD. Her problems surfaced when she was 3 years old.
Nelson’s son James, or JJ, is 16 and is mentally challenged.
Daughter Aleyssa, 11, was born deaf, without one ear. She can hear out of the one ear, but she and her mother communicate via sign language when they’re in a noisy place.
Son Shane, 10, has low vision and is almost legally blind.
Nelson said disabilities don’t run in her family. She has epilepsy and had taken a medication she later learned may have caused her children’s disabilities.
“I wouldn’t trade my children for the world, though,” she said. “I would have still had them if I had known they would have disabilities.”
Nelson said she’s been a single parent for most of her children’s lives. She remarried in 2008. Her husband, Trent, has three children who live with their mom.
“My husband and I barely see each other because of his job, but he is supportive of me,” she said.
A natural coach
Nelson has no training in coaching, but she has learned about sports along with those she coaches and she’s learned from them.
About 60 children and adults participate in the sports activities.
Coaching seems to come naturally to Nelson as she applies common sense and intuition to mentoring the disabled.
At a recent basketball practice, Nelson cheered on the athletes while sharing tips, demonstrating techniques and giving encouragement.
“Great job, Buddy! Good job. You’ll do better next time.”
One boy began to scream as he stood ready for a practice throw. He wasn’t in physical pain. But his screams created a bit of a stir among some of the athletes.
“That’s his thing, y’all,” she told them matter-of-factly. “Everybody’s got their own.”
The boy threw the ball and practice continued.
Scott Hoffee said his 31-year-old daughter, Christina, has been attending the weekly sports program for three years. His daughter is developmentally delayed and has cerebral palsy.
“She makes sure I remember it’s Tuesday night so she can come out and play,” Hoffee said. “It’s been a blessing.”
Nelson’s rapport with kids and grownups alike “makes them feel good and wanted,” Hoffee said.
Nelson said she’s harder on her own children than those she coaches. She knows her children’s limitations and when they’re not doing what they can do.
“I’ve watched everything therapists have done with my children and I’ve learned a lot on my own. Every day’s a learning experience. But I can tell what’s going on with them by their body language, like when they’re getting tired.”
Statistics show one in six children nationwide and one in five adults have a disability, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
About 15 percent of children ages 3 to 17 have one or more developmental disabilities, the study of 2015 statistics shows in a 2016 report.
Nelson said she chose to embrace being the mother of special needs children rather than feeling sorry for herself or for them.
Life is nothing like she had imagined it would turn out years ago when she said she would remain childless because she disliked living in foster care.
“I’m glad I’ve got the two boys and two girls,” she said.
‘She’s a go-getter’
Nelson also volunteers at the Parks and Recreation Department’s special events for those with special needs. A Mardi Gras party. A Halloween bash. A Cruisin’ Into Fall party. On Aug. 18, the event is a Back-To-School Hoorah Dance at the Donal Synder Community Center. As many as 200 people attend, including some parents, Bell said.
The city also uses Hiller Park and the A.J. Holloway Sports Complex for activities.
Bell said she can’t say enough good things about Nelson. Her success and popularity is largely due to the patience and understanding she’s learned in raising her own children, Bell said.
“She relates with those in the program and she’s very good with them,” Bell said. “They absolutely love her.
“She’s a well-rounded person. She works tirelessly and she’s a go-getter. You cannot slow her down if you try. And she’s the same way on the job.”
Sometimes parents of special needs children ask Nelson’s advice or opinion.
“I tell them every kid is different, whether they’re special needs or not,” Nelson said.
“You’ve got to trust in yourself and in your child. They’ll let you known when they’re ready to talk, to walk, to play sports.”
She doesn’t believe in holding her children back from things they want to pursue.
“I tell them no matter what they have, there’s something out there for them to do and they shouldn’t limit themselves,” Nelson said, “but they should experience life and prepare themselves to do what they want to do.”
SunHerald photojournalist John Fitzhugh contributed to this report.
Want to know more?
For details on the sports activities or special events, call 228-388-7170 or visit Biloxi’s Parks and Recreation events calendar online at https://www.biloxi.ms.us/residents/parks-recreation/.
About the series:
Our Kind of People is a feature in the Sun Herald and at SunHerald.com that spotlights South Mississippi people whose life or work is an inspiration to others.