The Faithful Companion

For families with children with intellectual disabilities, often, educational resources are hard to come by.

Obviously not every disability is the same, so what resource or advice that worked for one family could very well have a different effect on another. Sometimes all it takes to make a difference in the life of a family with a child who has an intellectual disability is having an open mind and a willingness to try anything to help their son or daughter.

For the Grammer family, one of the best resources they ever received for their daughter Jessica, 18, who has autism, wasn’t a self-help book or tutorial video, but had four legs, drooled and “talked in a Chewbacca voice.”

Early childhood
From the time Jessica was diagnosed with autism at age two until about age 10, she only communicated through sign language and pictures. She struggled with night terrors and would constantly trip over her own feet, which led to constant bruises up and down her arms and legs. She would also have “meltdowns” where she would physically lash out at family and friends.

Her parents, James and Jennifer, were at a loss as to how they could best help their daughter for the wide range of issues she faced.

They learned that people with autism sometimes tend to have fewer behavioral issues when they are on their backs.

“We put her in the pool and it mellowed her out for the rest of the day,” James said. “So we’d use the water as a calming agent on bad days and it ended up being two-fold. She’d calm down and then as she was practicing, she got better.”

Jessica loved to swim because it’s nice to jump in the pool on a hot summer day, but also because, “it’s smooth and mellow for me.”

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Jessica swims at Selection Camp last summer for the opportunity to attend the 2018 USA Games

Special Olympics
With Jessica’s new-found love for swimming, the Grammers heard about Special Olympics from a bagger at a supermarket in their home state of Illinois. Jessica jumped right in and latched onto the sport of swimming from day one.

“We were shocked and very scared when we found out that she decided to participate in swimming because she wasn’t a very good swimmer,” Jennifer said.

Swimming started out slow for Jessica, but before the family knew it, she was taking home gold at local competitions and moving up to more advanced strokes and longer races as well.

After four years in Illinois, the Grammers moved to Steelville, Mo., and immediately started Jessica in Special Olympics Missouri’s programming.

Jessica obviously loves the training and competition that Special Olympics offers, but she also enjoys being around other athletes.

“(I like) watching the athletes do their own sport at the competition events… (to) see the athletes’ smiles, having great spirit, having good cheers,” Jessica said.

To James and Jennifer, Special Olympics is all about opportunities

“Special Olympics, to me, means the world,” Jennifer said. “Just because it gives Jessica an outlet to do something that she loves at a competitive level and succeed at it, and be able to go out and make friends with the other competitors.”


The best resource available
While Special Olympics certainly did a lot to help Jessica come out of her shell, James and Jennifer give a lot of credit to a furry four-legged friend who joined the family a few years earlier.

While still living just outside of Chicago, the family would regularly attend autism awareness and fundraiser walks near Lake Michigan. When Jessica was seven years old, the Grammers participated in one of these walks where students from the University of Colorado were on hand. They had several golden retrievers trained as service dogs specifically for people with autism.

“They said, ‘They’re doing therapy with them and they’re getting these kids’ meltdowns under control.’ I looked at those college kids and said, ‘There’s no way a dog is going to take the place of a human,’” James said.

One year later, the family was off to South Dakota to pick up their very first service animal.

Due to the specific tasks, the dogs are trained for and the length and intensity of their training, they are quite expensive.

“The starting price on one was $25,000,” James said. “To say that we didn’t have $25,000 is an understatement.”

Because Jessica was not talking at this point in her life, she had to teach their new family member, Jayme Mack, a bullmastiff and Rottweiler mix, a series of hand signals and touch commands. Jayme was even tethered to Jessica for periods of time to keep Jessica out of the water or putting herself in dangerous situations.

Jayme excelled at breaking Jessica’s meltdowns quickly and efficiently either with a simple touch or by laying on top of her.

“…(She) was able to break a meltdown in under 10 seconds,” James said. “Whatever anxiety or anger that was in them, they touch the dog… whatever’s happening in their life stops and (the anxiety) becomes better. … Whatever (Jessica) is confused or angry about, she gives it to the dog.

“It didn’t matter how long it had been going on, how severe it was… there was something about that dog; she worked unbelievably well.”

Jayme helped Jessica overcome her night terrors as well as an improvement in her physical limitations. Once she was introduced during Jessica’s speech therapy sessions, the family saw an accelerated change in her verbal skills as well.

“She’s probably one of the best dogs I’ve ever known,” Jessica said. “She was great. She was funny. She talked back in a Chewbacca voice (*gargles*)… I could never do it right.

“She was easy to pet and hoped you were okay.”


Socialization skills
One of the other benefits of a therapy dog was how it helped Jessica meet new people and work on her socialization skills.

“She won’t necessarily walk up to a group of people if she’s by herself, but if she’s with the dog, she will go up to anybody and introduce herself,” Jennifer said.

After Jessica saw the pay-off for her work with Jayme, she wanted to share her experience with other people as well.

“We ended up going to Easter Seals, Make-A-Wish and then of course the Autism Society; Jayme kind of made the rounds,” James said.

Unfortunately, it was at one of these public events that after Jayme broke another kid’s meltdown, he fell on her and shattered her knee. Because of this, she was unable to work any longer. While they still kept Jayme around because she was just like any other member of the family, they needed to find a replacement service dog, which is where Tank comes in.

Tank
Tank joined the family in 2013 and learned on the job from Jayme what it took to help Jessica in her day-to-day life.

“He is Jessica’s walking buddy and sleeping buddy,” Jennifer said. “He calms Jessica and is just there for her at all times. She learns a lot by trying to teach Tank.”

Jessica and Tank learn from one another on a daily basis. One such example of this is by utilizing Tank in her Team Missouri training video blogs.

Jessica is an athlete-leader who has taken classes at SOMO’s Athlete Leadership Programs University (www.SOMO.org/ALPs) in technology and health. While she will compete in the sport of swimming at the upcoming 2018 USA Games in Seattle as part of Team Missouri, she wanted to give back to the team in the form of making sure all of her teammates were training properly, including stretching, eating, exercising and more.

“Originally she wanted Tank to do the videos,” Jennifer said. “You’ve already realized that Tank doesn’t talk, so the video was for her to be able to talk comfortably in the video and have Tank by her side (for support).

“We also realized people might be more willing to listen when there’s a dog or animal involved.”

Sadly, Jayme passed away in November 2017 from cancer. Jessica said she’s dedicating her swimming at the USA Games in memory of Jayme.

With Tank by her side and Jayme in her heart, Jessica will take to the water in a few months and undoubtedly make everyone proud, no matter the outcome.

“If I win or lose… if I was against somebody on another team, I’d still be congratulating that person, because the next time it makes me train harder,” Jessica said.

“Boy, I’m so excited!”


The New-York Literary Journal, Volume 4, 1821:

The faithful dog – why should I strive

To speak his merits, while they live

In every breast, and man’s best friend

Does often at his heels attend.

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Guest post: An introspection, an apology and embracing my disability

D'Agostino, Allison_Staff

Allison D’Agostino will travel to the 2018 USA Games with the other 100 Team Missouri delegates and help the PR team take photos, videos and interview athletes and coaches competing at the Games.

This guest blog post is from 2018 Team Missouri athlete-leader Allison D’Agostino (public relations assistant). It was originally written on her personal blog and re-posted here with her permission. It has been edited by SOMO for content and length.

It hasn’t even been a full week into May and already there’s something to say about Special Olympics – about all the athletes, and even those who aren’t IN Special Olympics, but who have disabilities. Today, I received a call from my boss about certain issues that occurred this year. One of which consisted complaints from certain athletes about a question I asked them in my interviews. The question was, “What is your disability?”

To be honest,  I tend to react before I think. It’s been a gift and a curse my entire life. Lately, it’s been more of a curse. I don’t know how to fix it. Because I’m a PR Assistant for Team Missouri, this “react before thinking” has repercussions to Special Olympics, its image and mine as well. I tend to embrace everything about myself, including my flaws. Even though, at times, I wish I didn’t have those flaws.

When I asked these athletes that question – “What is your disability?” – I didn’t consider their feelings. Which I find that odd, because I normally respect people’s privacy despite my nosy curiosity. I thought they would want to inform the viewers what their disability is and how it’s affected their life.

Looking back on my time growing up, it’s hard for me to remember if people really bullied me because of my disability. Nobody really knew about my disability unless I brought it up. When I spoke about this issue of the question, “What is your disability?” to my mother, she explained to me that not everyone is comfortable talking about their disability and embracing it like I do. I am fully aware of that, and I have to constantly remind myself not to ask those who are disabled this exact question.

I was raised to respect people – no matter their physical appearance or mental issue. I may not always remember to do so, but if and when I am reminded, I make sure to back off and apologize. In a way, this blog is an apology to those athletes I’ve asked that question, “What is your disability?”

I want to remind you, though. You don’t need to be embarrassed about your disability. It is what makes you unique and true to yourself. If you see any flaws or skills that come from that disability, don’t hide them, but embrace them. You can use those flaws and skills to your advantage. Teach people what you can and cannot do. Inform someone what you’re passionate and not passionate about. Improve on those flaws and skills. This helps you get up off the ground with pride and confidence. Someday, you’ll be able to tell someone, “Yes, I did that. I may not have been THE best, but I was MY best. And I’ve improved since then.”

That’s when you’re truly living the Special Olympics Athlete’s Oath outside of sports and in real life.

“Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
Live it. Breathe it. You CAN do it!

Two Men and a Truck Make a Special Delivery

This post was written by Special Olympics Missouri coach Mark Bussen.

On April 4, Two Men and a Truck took an unusual route to make a special delivery to Special Olympics Missouri. Tyler Sonnabend is their driver supervisor and he had a beautiful, full head of long, flowing hair. His management team offered him $500 to the charity of his choice if he would allow his co-workers to shave his head. Tyler quickly jumped at the chance to help others, and chose to help Special Olympics Missouri. Tyler’s brother, Brendan, has been an athlete with the West County Special Olympic team for a long time. Tyler has also donated his time in the past to help coach his brother’s team.

The $500 offer quickly began to grow as his co-workers bid against each other for the opportunity to shave his head. When the locks of hair finally fell to the floor, and Tyler had a new, shiny head, $1,849 was raised for our athletes. Two Men and Truck employees didn’t just mail in a check, they took the time to hand deliver the check at the team’s practice, as they wanted to meet the athletes and experience what made Tyler jump at the chance. They also brought their mascot, Truckie, in full costume as part of the ceremony. It didn’t take long for them to all have big smiles, and for them to see what our athletes can accomplish with a little support.

Thanks to all at Two Men and a Truck for their kindness and generosity. You made a difference in our athletes’ lives.
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Guest post: Father lauds Special Olympics, Team Missouri for sons’ health improvements

Ed. note: This article was written by Paul Burnett, Sr., whose twin sons Paul, Jr., and John who will compete at the 2018 USA Games in Seattle on the softball team.

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Paul (left) and John (right) have found their love for the game of softball. This photo is from the two of them during a competition in their first year with SOMO.

My sons, John and Paul Burnett, both 33, have been enjoying Special Olympics sports since 2010. During this time they have enjoyed bowling, bocce and tried their hands at basketball, but their first love has always been softball.

They have made life-long friends and grown a tremendous amount as athletes and as young men. Special Olympics Missouri means the world to them partly because they love sports and competing but also because they enjoy the company of their friends and having a good time.

A few years ago, the boys started having issues that doctors traced to their livers. It turned out that their A1C levels (the higher your A1C levels, the worse your blood sugar control/the more complications you’ll have from diabetes) started going up and, as a result, they were diagnosed with diabetes.

Their mother and I have been fighting to try to help them lose weight, eat right, (stay off the soda) and improve their overall health. The boys seemed at times to not take the issue seriously enough. They just wanted to go on like nothing was wrong or it was not that big of a deal. Then along came a chance to try out for Team Missouri in softball.

They have wanted to do this for a long time — to represent their state at the USA Games. We told them they had to work to earn it. Then that special evening came when Susan Shaffer announced that the boys made it. While their mother and I shed some tears, they just clapped, looked at each other and said it was time to go to work.

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Paul pitches during the 2017 SONA NIT Softball Tournament in Bismarck, N.D.

They were given workout sheets by their coaches to get ready for Seattle. Amazingly mom and dad did not have to force them to work. They started working out hard five or six days a week rain or shine.

They started losing weight, and getting stronger and healthier. They had a complete physical in March where we found out they lost nearly 40 pounds between them. Their A1C levels came down to 5.1 and 5.3 but the greatest thing, their livers started to function normally for the first time in almost 10 years. The doctor said they’re doing so well they may be able to stop taking their medication before they leave for Seattle!

All of this has taken place in the last four months since Team Missouri unveiled its MO Magic Bucks program. (Ed. Note:  This program is a point-based system that allows Team Missouri delegates to earn points for eating/drinking right, exercising, sharing their progress with friends and more. The cumulative total of points can be used to purchase items such as a FitBit, a water bottle/smoothie blender, exercise equipment and more.)

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John hits a line drive for a base hit during the 2017 SONA NIT Softball Tournament in Bismarck, N.D.

Their mother and I cannot thank Special Olympics Missouri enough for this. As most parents know, children do not always like to listen to us parents (apparently we do not know what we’re talking about). It took something that they really wanted, to light a fire under them. They talk about going to Seattle to represent Missouri with their friends and bring back gold medals, all the time.

As parents, SOMO has been a great adventure, not only with our children but the friends we have made. We talk to other parents that go through the same things and we can lean on each other. From the very first time we went to a Special Olympic event in 2010 we knew we found our second home.

Thank you, SOMO!

Exercise MO Magic bucks_fill in own total

Here is what our MO Magic bucks look like that we’re giving out to our Team Missouri athletes for training and eating right. They can then cash them in for prizes. It has the picture of our HOD Susan Shaffer on it, which our athletes certainly got a kick out of when we unveiled them.

Recapping the 2018 State Indoor Games

I have to admit, as the PR Assistant for Team Missouri, I had some ideas on what to expect for the State Indoor Games March 16-17 in St. Joseph.

For instance, I knew what I’d be filming, what shots to take during basketball and bowling, who to interview and the generic responses to our usual questions. I didn’t know I was out of my league, no pun intended. There were some responses that touched my heart.

I asked questions to athletes, coaches, Unified Partners (including a handful of those on Team Missouri attending the 2018 USA Games in Seattle later this summer), volunteers and even a parent or two. I enjoyed talking to all of them. They all surprised me at how uniquely they responded. It not only made my heart skip a beat, but also made me proud as an athlete and a representative for Missouri.

 

Team Missouri
One of the things I’ve learned about myself, several years ago, is that I love to learn, no matter the topic, subject or issue. My fellow athletes never disappoint in teaching me something new – whether it’s about their sport or something entirely different. Eight bowlers and ten basketball players, Unified Partners included, are going to Seattle to compete this summer in the 2018 USA Games.

Two of the bowlers on Team Missouri, Brandon Mynatt and Jeremiah Ellis, each won gold in their division at State Indoor Games; they worked hard for it too.

“Go slow, and focus on the pins,” Mynatt said.

Ellis said, “Watch for the other lanes first, then stretching, then try bowling straight,”

Thanks for the advice, Team Missouri athletes!

I even managed to interview the coach of the Team Missouri basketball squad, Kris Clark. He said the team does practice as much as it can, but scheduling is difficult.

“Competitions are definitely the best practice time for us,” Clark said. “We’ve got a long way to go, but we’ll get there for sure.”

Mynatt and Ellis both took home gold in their respective divisions and the Team Missouri basketball squad also took home first place.

Athletes
Athletes prove to everyone that they can achieve anything with hard work and determination. The one thing I’ve noticed in my fellow athletes is their drive to achieve whatever they put their mind to, even when they don’t win the medal they hoped to.

As Tyler Hannegan, a basketball athlete for six years, said, “I didn’t make (Team Missouri), but I’m gonna try again in another four years.”

Chris Mounts plays basketball for Jefferson City and his team won the bronze medal at State Indoor Games. While he and his team wanted gold, he still held his head high following the game.

“Sometimes we lose,” Mounts said. “We’ll do better next time.”

Nothing is impossible, fellow athletes. Don’t give up just yet. Keep that hope and faith, and also don’t forget to listen to your coaches. They help improve your skills.

Coaches
The coaches and parents are always so proud of us athletes. When I attended the basketball venues, I made certain to talk to the coaches and parents. I’ve learned they love to talk, especially when their child is competing.

I did find two things in common, in fact: whether they won or lost either of the two games, everyone had fun and played their hardest. Coach Jim Rash of the Trenton basketball team provided great feedback on this.

“We were playing against boys all day long,” he said, “We have two girls on our team, but they fought hard. They played the best two games they ever played, so I can’t complain.”

Sportsmanship
I think one of my favorite moments, which I can’t remember if I captured it on camera or not, was during a basketball game.

An athlete fell to the ground after a play. The referees blew the play dead. The timer stopped.

After that, though, an athlete of the opposing team stood close, held out a hand, and helped him stand. I love sportsmanship, no matter what organization or sport it is.

Volunteers
Any good non-profit needs volunteers to keep it running. That’s why we’re always asking and always looking for help at our competitions across the state. The number of volunteers increases every year for Special Olympics Missouri. The awareness it brings to our intellectual disabilities is a plus.

“(Some) don’t really need help,” said Duane Richardson, a first-time volunteer. “They’re self-sufficient. They’re able to do what they need to do. Only thing I need to do is occasionally reset the lane when we have a malfunction. Everything else they’re completely capable of doing everything on their own.”

I did see quite a few athletes on Saturday who needed the steel ramp to aim and bowl. They needed a volunteer to help move it. Even then, their confidence is still high, being supported by the volunteer.

I am sometimes surprised when I come across a volunteer who is helping out for the first time, such as Ariel Hall, a sophomore track and field athlete. I asked why she chose Special Olympics and specifically why this event.

“For Benton (High School) Track, we were deciding to do more with the community, so we decided to help Special Olympics,” Hall said. “It’s been really fun. The people are really nice and they’re really good at bowling.”

I imagine she and her friends learned something new that day and vice versa with the athletes she met.

Games Management Team
Like I said before, I love to learn, and when I learn something, I want to pass that knowledge to even more people. To put on a state competition, key volunteers and staff members work together as a Games Management Team. For months leading up to the event, they plan every detail.

When asking Lindsey Bernard, chairwoman of the State Indoor Games GMT, I realized the team did so much to ensure the event was successful.

“We have a committee of about thirty people that work to make sure that we’re prepared for the Games to come to St. Joseph: Sponsorships, work with facilities, hotels, meals… everyone works to make sure that once the athletes arrive, we’re ready to go.”

Every State Games is a huge boost to its hosting city’s economy.

“We wanted the State Indoor Games to come back to St. Joseph because it’s a huge impact on our city; it’s almost $1 million for a one-year event.”

Athletes may pay a fee to attend State Games, but there are a lot of costs that SOMO pays to put on the Games. They pay for our hotel rooms, our lunches, entertainment, events and even the gas for their vehicles. To know all of this now makes me feel even more appreciative and grateful for the organization.

Parents
Last but not least, we have the parents. Yes, Special Olympics needs staff, volunteers, athletes and hosts to function, but the parents are the cheerleaders we need. In return, the athletes teach their parents about the important things. Special Olympics would not be so well-known, without caring parents.

When it comes to parents, they love to brag and embarrass their children – my own mother included.

I asked Dale Kriete, father of basketball athlete Deanne Kriete, if she has changed since she joined SOMO. He said, “Oh yeah, she’s more outgoing now than she ever was. It’s a good thing for her.” As a result of her involvement in Special Olympics, her social skills have improved.

What fascinates me is the bond between the athletes and their parents.

“She teaches me how to be a good sport like she is,” Kriete said. “I always enjoy coming to the games and everything. It’s kind of a thing between me and my daughter to do. It’s always enjoyable.”

Guest post: Athlete-leader Lynna Hodgson explains her love of SO


My name is Lynna Hodgson. I’m a Special Olympics Missouri athlete. My whole family is involved with Special Olympics. I have two brothers who are also athletes. The younger brother is involved in Special Olympics in his high school. I recruited my uncle to be in Special Olympics. My other brother, my uncle and I are involved in Lee’s Summit Adults team.

My dad is a 3-on-3 basketball coach and my mom is a big supporter! We’ve been with Lee’s Summit for six years. Before we got involved in Special Olympics, we were “couch potatoes,” that is what my mom called us, those were her own words. She was exactly right! All we did was watch TV, play video games, eat and just sit and be lazy. Now we have weekly practices, we go to tournaments and we travel to different cities in Missouri. We both are going to the 2018 USA Games in July. I never imagined I would get the chance to go in my lifetime.

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Lynna (middle) poses for a photo with her father, Rand (left) and her brother, Jesse (right)

Special Olympics has changed our lives for the better! We both are more social, more active and we are both aware of other people with disabilities. Jesse and I were always aware, but since we got involved in Special Olympics, we are more aware of people who have disabilities. We always look forward to practices, and seeing our friends; anything that involves Special Olympics, we love it.

Special Olympics has given us a happier and healthier life. We both are very thankful to Special Olympics. They have given us hope, laughter, friends, independence and a place where we can call home. We are very proud to be athletes of Special Olympics Missouri.

If we didn’t get involved in Special Olympics I think we would be very unhealthy. Special Olympics is really good for my health because I have asthma and allergies. It’s also good for our depression; it helps us to be less depressed. So this is really good for me and my brother. I’m so grateful and honored to be in this great organization.

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Lynna and her brother, Jesse, are excited to on Team Missouri for the 2018 USA Games in Seattle. They are both on the track and field team and have been training hard to be the best athletes they can be for the competition.

 

West County Special Olympics and Marquette High School Hooping it up, building friendships, and putting on a show

Mark Bussen HOF

This story was written by SOMO Hall of Fame member Mark Bussen. Bussen, a longtime coach and volunteer, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013 for his coaching with West County in St. Louis, tireless fundraising and dedication and connection to the athletes of Special Olympics Missouri. Bussen witnessed this story firsthand and was inspired to share it with us.

The Marquette High School Mustangs and the West County Special Olympic
basketball team have developed a “Special” bond together. For many years,
the Marquette Mustang’s Varsity basketball team has hosted us for a New Years
Clinic in early January, followed up by hosting us to play an exhibition game before their Varsity takes the floor for one of their league games in February.

This year, the clinic was held on January 13th. The Marquette players and coaches
gave up their Saturday morning to host us in a fun, fast paced, but relaxed atmosphere where we got to interact alongside their players. Their players and ours, mingle together in fun drills and games, all the while building friendships and raising awareness of the talents of both teams. The clinic was followed up with a pizza party luncheon compliments of Marquette, and each one of our players was presented with a “Mustang Made” tee shirt that our athletes wear with pride.

On February 9th, Marquette played Seckman High School, but the real show began before their game as the West County Special Olympic team took the floor before
a big, boisterous crowd. Prior to our game, each player was introduced to a thunderous starting lineup ovation. The crowd really gets into it, which revs up our players, spurring them on to maximum excitement and elevated levels of play.

West County’s Scott Carron, also a Marquette alumni, is an extra favorite of the Marquette team. As Scott received a pass, the Marquette players shouted in unison for Scott to shoot a long three pointer. Scott buried the three pointer, and immediately ran off the court into the arms of the Marquette players. The crowd and players all went crazy. A Marquette coach said “I knew Scotty wouldn’t let us down”!

There is more to it than just making a long shot. Scott developed a friendship with
former Marquette star player, Chris Lenzen. Chris tragically lost his life in an automobile accident several years ago. Marquette presented Scott with Chris’s #22 jersey, and said they knew no one would be more honored to wear it than Scott, and I will promise you that is correct! After Scott made his shot, he pointed to the heavens, and I know Chris was smiling back at us. The Lenzen family has been a major donor to the Training for Life Campus, and the basketball court will be named in Chris’s honor. On top of the wonderful experience for all involved, Marquette also donated $1,900 to Special Olympics Missouri that night.

I swear they should make a movie about these kids, you can’t make this stuff up.
“Magic” just happens, and touching lives is what we do!