Volunteering with Special Olympics just as important as Med School for this Newfoundland & Labrador coach

For National Volunteer Week, April 19 to 25, we are thanking our 22,000 volunteers across Canada by sharing some of their stories. Their unwavering support helps Special Olympics athletes and their families build the confidence, determination and strength to take on any challenge in sport – and in life.


Melissa Tobin smiles for a photo with an athlete on a soccer field
Melissa Tobin (right) with one of her Special Olympics Newfoundland & Labrador athletes.

When Melissa Tobin started Medical School last year, she didn’t even question continuing her role as a Special Olympics swim coach.

Although the 23-year-old knew her first year studying medicine at Memorial University of Newfoundland was a major time commitment, Monday night swim practice was just as important.

“I look forward to it just as much as the athletes look forward to it,” she said. “Special Olympics is definitely my favourite night of the week.”

Tobin began volunteering when she was in grade 12, after wrapping up her own competitive swimming programs in high school.

“I had all this free time and I didn’t really know what to do with it,” she recalled.

She got in touch with Special Olympics Newfoundland & Labrador and began volunteering with the Mount Pearl club.

Today she’s not only the head swim coach, but also the head bocce coach in summer.

“I definitely didn’t think I would have the role I have now and make so many memories and friendships,” said Tobin. “It’s been life changing for me.”

While Special Olympics has helped her develop leadership skills and confidence, her involvement is more about “the warm fuzzies” it brings her each week.

“I volunteer for the smiles and laughter,” she said. “One of my favourite parts is that you could be having the worst day of your life and then you walk into the swimming pool and everyone is just excited and high fiving, so it makes whatever was going on beforehand go away.”

Last year, in an attempt to impact more athletes across Newfoundland, she applied for a grant – the Duke of Edinburgh’s Passion to Purpose Community Grant and the #RisingYouth Community Service Grant - to host a Special Olympics swim camp. She received $3,000 and launched the Sunshine Swim Camp in St. John’s, which had 18 athletes and 13 youth coaches attend.

At the camp, Tobin helped an athlete put her head under water for the first time.

A graphic that reads I volunteer for the smiles and laughter

“We were working all weekend on it, because we knew as soon as she did her stroke would immensely improve,” Tobin recalled. “By the time she left, she was swimming with her head in the water, so that was pretty exciting and it was cool for her coaches to see her be able to improve.”

Tobin applied for the grants again this year and received $15,000. She hopes to host the next Sunshine Swim Camp in the fall in Labrador and open it up to more athletes from across the province.

Tobin has also found ways to incorporate Special Olympics into her studies, by inviting athletes to speak during her classes – which resulted in 10 peers registering as volunteers.

“I can’t imagine my life without Special Olympics,” said Tobin. “Although it’s volunteering it doesn’t feel like work or anything.”

“I can teach the athletes a lot, but I think they can teach me just as much, in terms of empathy and patience and kindness towards others.”