When Mary Sue Green volunteers for Special Olympics, she feels as if she is spending time among family members.

Green has dedicated her time to local Special Olympics programs for the last 10 years. The bond she forms with the athletes makes it all worthwhile.

“The athletes are just awesome, and I love the time I spend with them,” Green said. “Some of them are older than me. I still call them my kids.”

The Special Olympics Winter Games will kick off today in Dubuque, with multiple competitions taking place at a trio of venues across Dubuque County. As always, Green will be there to support the athletes.

Her passion was piqued about a decade ago, when she began dropping off her daughter, Ellen, at Special Olympics practices. Ellen has Down syndrome, and Mary Sue quickly observed the positive impact that Special Olympics was having on her.

While she was attending practices, Mary Sue Green began helping out in whatever way she could.

Her small role as a volunteer blossomed into a major one about six years ago. John Powers, the longtime coach of the Dubuque Packers Special Olympics team, died in 2014 and left a “huge hole” in the Special Olympics community.

“It was hard for the athletes, and it was hard for those us who had worked with him,” Green recalled.

Realizing that the athletes needed a new leader, Green and fellow volunteer Irene Stephan stepped up to tackle the coaching duties.

Their collective guidance helps athletes prepare for events like the upcoming Winter Games.

Stephan said it is a joy to give back to the program.

“The athletes enjoy the challenge and are so invested,” Stephan said. “It inspires me and makes me want to keep going.”

The partnership between Green and Stephan has garnered positive attention on the statewide level.

Rhonda Schwarzkopf, director of sports and advanced competitions for Special Olympics Iowa, believes the duo has made a positive impact on many athletes’ lives.

“They work extremely well together, and their leadership has helped create one of the best Special Olympics delegations that we have here in Iowa,” she said.

In addition to her coaching duties, Green serves as the program manager for the Dubuque Packers. She handles registration, fundraising and grant writing duties.

In a typical week, she spends about 20 hours of her time on these efforts.

Green never questions whether the investment is worthwhile, and she sees the lessons that the athletes learn.

“I think it teaches about more than just the sports,” she said. “It provides lessons about teamwork and sportsmanship.”