Special Olympics Missouri is more than just sports for our athletes – it offers opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities who may not have received them elsewhere.
The Global Messenger program through Special Olympics Missouri is one such opportunity.
The Global Messenger trains SOMO athletes on what it means to be an athlete with an intellectual disability, the history of the program and most importantly, it teaches them how to find their SOMO story and then share it with the world. It’s all about telling their narrative while gaining the confidence and skills to give public speeches.
Becoming a Global Messenger gives athletes the belief that they can go into their communities and share their story and affords them opportunities to represent SOMO locally, nationally and globally.
Thomas Cleek, 15, of Columbia was trained as a Global Messenger prior to competing at the 2014 USA Games in New Jersey for golf. His sister, Mary, 17, is a Unified Partner® and coach of Thomas’s volleyball team. Their commitment together to foster dignity and respect for all is the reason they were selected to represent Missouri at Special Olympics Capitol Hill Day 2015.
Their mother, Heather, also went on the trip and said, “I wanted my kids to participate in Hill Day because I have seen firsthand how their involvement in Special Olympics has shaped them as individuals and as athletes.
“Thomas has become more confident and outgoing as a person and he has developed friendships and sportsmanship skills. Mary has become more nurturing, developed as an athlete and a coach and found purpose in her life.”
The Cleeks had never been to a Special Olympics Capitol Hill Day before, so they had little to no expectations going into meeting with their representatives. The purpose of the meetings was to ask for level or a slight increase in funding from the federal government to go toward Healthy Athletes (www.somo.org/HealthyAthletes) and Project UNIFY.
“I wanted to be a part of Hill Day because of the opportunity it gave me to make a difference for Special Olympics and its future programs,” Mary said.
So on March 17 the Cleeks flew into Washington, D.C., and attended a banquet where they heard Special Olympics CEO Janet Froetscher talk about the importance of getting their representatives to understand they were “a good investment” for federal funding, especially in regard to Healthy Athletes.
Practicing their speeches took up most of that afternoon as they tried to really understand what they were asking for and the best way to share their stories.
Thomas said he was looking forward to meeting “all of the people who work in the Capitol.”
“My job was pretty much to go in and tell my story about Special Olympics stuff I’m involved in,” Thomas said.
The following day, the Cleeks met with Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a representative from Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer’s office, a representative from William Lacy “Bill” Clay’s office, Rep. Ann Wagner and Sen. Roy Blunt.
Thomas was even invited to cast a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives by Rep. Wagner; he said this was his favorite part of the day.
Special Olympics empowers not just our athletes, but our families, volunteers and coaches so they can all share their story; because every person involved in SOMO has one to tell.
“I acquired the skills it takes to meet face to face with people and make monetary requests while still making it personal,” Mary said. “I thought Thomas did an incredible job sharing his personal success story and representing SOMO.”
It was a proud moment for mother, Heather, too.
“Thomas and Mary did an excellent job,” Heather said. “I was so proud of how they shared their stories, fielded questions and handled a very busy and long day with lots of walking.
“(It was great to see) how responsive everyone was to Thomas and Mary’s stories. It was amazing to see my children making a difference at this level for Special Olympics.
“I will cherish the memories of seeing my kids making a difference, making great new friends and developing skills that will help them in other areas of their lives.”
It’s nice to have someone involved in the program to lobby on Special Olympics’ behalf, but it’s even better when the family tasked with this project lives and breathes what the organization stands for day in and day out.
Mary first got involved with Special Olympics when Thomas took part in SOMO’s first Young Athletes Program more than 10 years ago. Since that day, Mary has been more than just a sister to Thomas, but she’s been a friend, coach, Unified Partner and mentor.
Heather said before Mary’s involvement in SOMO, brother and sister didn’t really get along, but since she became a Unified Partner and coach for Thomas in volleyball, both of their attitudes have changed and they appreciate each other more.
“Special Olympics means so much to me,” Heather said. “I see lifelong friendships for my kids and me. I see a happy, healthy life for Thomas doing what he loves most – sports! I see a career for Mary that will bring her great happiness and satisfaction.”
Mary said her family’s experience showed her how SOMO is more than just sports.
“It’s truly a family,” Mary said. “The love, support and genuine joy within Special Olympics is by far the greatest of any group I’ve been a part of.”