My name is Harrison McLean and I currently serve as the Public Relations and Volunteer Coordinator for Special Olympics Missouri. I have been involved with SOMO for a little over a month, so since I am the newest member on staff I wanted to share some of my first experiences I’ve had as part of this organization. Enjoy!
I did not know what to expect. I was nervous. Optimistic. Excited. Unsure.
I did not know that a week spent on the campus of a military academy in the sweltering heat of summer would become the highlight of my young career.
I was going to Sports Camp, a week-long adventure held once year over the course of one week by Special Olympics Missouri (SOMO) to give over 80 athletes a chance to practice and try new sports, meet new friends and spend time on their own away from home. For athletes with varying levels of intellectual disabilities, it gives them a chance for a summer camp experience they may not be able to have otherwise. Upon their arrival to camp, the athletes are split into five groups which they stay in for the entire week.
Sports Camp consists of a multitude of sports and activities that are both offered as official Special Olympics sports or more leisure-based games. The mornings are spent rotating through five SOMO sports (volleyball, flag football, soccer, tennis and golf), with each group spending about 45 minutes at each station.
Following lunch and a brief rest period, the groups rotate through another five activities, ranging from disc golf and swimming, to bocce and noodle hockey. Then, after all 10 activities are done and dinner is served, the whole camp participates in an evening activity, whether it be a movie night, Minute to Win It games, relay races or the highly anticipated dance.
While the focus of Sports Camp is, naturally, to play sports and pick up skills throughout the week, it soon becomes much more than that for campers, staff, counselors and coaches alike. It becomes a time for people to bond on and off the playing field, to understand one another not just as athletes but on a more personal level. Everyone eats together, lives together in the barracks, plays together, shares the same experiences throughout the week, making getting to know someone in a group that spends five and a half days together that much easier.
Even spending just a single day in a group, as I did, can create bonds and friendships that will last beyond the week at camp. As the new PR and media member on staff, it was my job to document the events of the week on social media, following a different group each day. Through the lens of my iPhone camera, I was able to capture people’s joy as they played their favorite sport with friends, determination as they learned a new skill, triumph as they learned to ride a bike for the first time.
But through the lens of my own two eyes, I was able to see the bonds of friendship being formed, both between athletes and staff members. I sometimes even forgot my media duties because I got too wrapped up in helping an athlete learn how to hit a tennis ball or swing a golf club.
This was my first opportunity to get to know a lot of our athletes over an extended period of time. I started on Monday nervously asking a group leader if I could follow them and maybe take a few pictures. By Friday, I had made connections with athletes in every single group. We cracked jokes, overcame challenges, told each other about our days and shared stories about ourselves. I even scored a couple of dates to the dance.
At the end of the week, a few staff members held what we call Input Councils, where we give athletes as well as counselors and coaches personal spaces to talk about what went well and what could be improved upon going forward. One athlete brought up that a strength of the camp was how everyone was able to come together as one, had respect for one another and built to become a family. Because Special Olympics isn’t just an organization, it becomes a family.
In my first month on the job I had seen events like State Summer Games and Jamaal Charles football camps take place. I knew what it was like to work in the Jefferson City offices and manage the business side of the organization. But it wasn’t until Sports Camp that I really got to see what Special Olympics Missouri was all about on a personal level. I knew then that I was part of the family.