ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) For Alaskans across the state, the death announcement of Special Olympics Alaska President and CEO, Jim Balamaci came as a shock Thursday.
If there was ever an Alaskan who wore his heart on his sleeve, it was Balamaci. "We build our communities, we build our state and we build our friendships," Balamaci said in a 2017 interview with KTUU.
Many will remember Balamaci as a man who worked to create a world of inclusion, but his love of life and infectious personality inspired so much more in the 49th state.
"He was one of those guys who no matter what you were doing, he always took the time of day to say 'hello' or shake your hand and always acknowledge you," Special Olympics Alaska Volunteer, Brian Sision said.
For decades, Balamaci worked with the organization. He started volunteering back in 1979, coached in Kodiak in the 1980's and then took the helm as the state leader in 1996. "He came out and he was just very intense, wanted to get the program going," Bob Hill, who knew Balamaci for more than 20 years said Thursday night. Paul Landes, Chairman Elect for the organization said there are now 2,000 athletes statewide,"when Jim took over, there were 400 athletes."
Hill recalled Balamaci had a raw determination to bring in more communities across the state to participate in the games. "He was super motivated for Special Olympics." Hill said Balamaci lead the charge in creating a shift in culture among communities by encouraging people to not use the word, 'retard' to describe individuals with intellectual disabilities. "The outcome is through sports, people with IDD are accepted in the community, gain friendships, acceptance and jobs, and it's all about unity," Balamaci told Channel 2 in 2015.
Hill's son, Bobby, is an athlete with Special Olympics Alaska. On Thursday night, he and several volunteers had gathered for a weekly ritual to enjoy a few pints at an Eagle River brewery. "I miss him in my heart too. I loved him, a lot," Hill said before raising his glass and giving a toast to the beloved Balamaci.
"There's only one Jim Balamaci, he can't be replaced. Special Olympics is going to continue to go on in Alaska, it'll carry on but with his legacy there's no replacing him," Sision said.