My SOMO story begins in 1997 in Atchison, Kansas. I was an uninspired fifth year senior with an extra semester still to go. In search of a way to finish my college career sometime before I hit my thirties, I began to hit the trail in search of some type of internship. Now, if there is one sport that I love, it is the game of baseball. I could sit and talk for hours about baseball stats, players, managers, strategies and so on. I had basically spent the entire year trying to get hired for an internship with a minor league baseball team. Unfortunately, due to finals week, I was unable to attend the large job fair minor league teams use to hire most of their interns.
Then one day I got a call from my mother, and she had been doing some looking on her own, presumably since she was tired of paying for all these years at a private college. Gary Brimer (SOMO’s Chief Sports Officer) had an opening in Jefferson City at the headquarters office. The pay wasn’t much but it would count for credit, I could live at home and we could carpool together since Gary & I lived in the same town. I had known Gary pretty much my whole life, and since the baseball thing didn’t appear to be panning out, I decided to take him up on his offer. My experience with Special Olympics was next to nothing. I had helped Gary out at a local basketball tournament a couple of times in Boonville (my hometown), but nothing more than that. I had the typical “too cool for school” attitude initially, and took more than my fair share of ribbing from my roommates about spending my summer working with a bunch “special” people. That’s about the attitude I took with me to begin.
On my first day on the job, Gary told me to pack up my stuff as we would be leaving for the Missouri State Summer Games at Ft. Leonard Wood the following day. Let me tell you, there’s nothing like being thrown to the wolves on your first week beginning with the biggest event in the state. So as the Games began, and I got more acclimated with Special Olympics, I began to see what it was all about. I saw all of the passion, determination, and hard work that was put into the games by the athletes, coaches, staff and volunteers. I saw that these athletes were not really any different than me or my roommates. And I remember leaving the Fort with a whole new respect for the athletes and thinking, “Heck, if I had half as much drive as they did, I wouldn’t be facing my sixth year of college dead in the face.”
The summer continued pretty much uneventful just doing the basic intern stuff like filing and what not. Then one day Gary proposed to me that Missouri was going to put on an athlete camp as a pre-cursor to a Special Olympics World Games the following year. Missouri had never put on a camp, but other states were trying it and he wanted to see how it went with athletes spending a week away participating in various different sports. I would be the director. Well, all I can say is, what an experience it was. We trained in different sports such as basketball, aquatics, and tennis. We had nightly activities. It was really a good insight once again that these athletes are just like you and I. I can’t tell you how much fun I had with them. From playing sports with them, showing of my limited dance skills at the dance, and even doing a camp activity known as hiney writing (basically writing your name with your posterior) it truly was one of the best weeks I have ever had. On the last day of camp, we said our goodbyes and as we were leaving I was presented with an official camp shirt with the autographs of about a hundred of my new friends. To this day, that shirt is framed and hanging up in my house for all to see.
Sadly, the internship came to an end after camp and it was back to school, but I always took with me all of the life lessons the athletes had taught me through their actions. Life went on, and eventually I did get that baseball job. I spent ten years traveling the southeast working in baseball. But I never forgot about Special Olympics, it might have been volunteering at the softball tourney in Tennessee, or helping coordinate the Jello Jump at my stadium in Virginia. Special Olympics was no longer something I joked about or avoided it was something I sought out and wanted to be a part of.
Now life has brought me full circle, and low and behold I am back working with Special Olympics Missouri full time. I even make it back to camp each year. It’s just like the old adage says: “You can take yourself out of Special Olympics, but you will never take Special Olympics out of you.”
Tim Schuster, left, is the Northeast Area Director for SOMO. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.