For some at the John Cary Early Childhood Center in St. Louis, it was just another day to play. The children at Special Olympics Missouri’s Young Athletes Program™ the afternoon of Halloween 2016 (curiously without costumes) were enthralled with the colorful silk scarves flying through the air or the daunting obstacle course set up in the hallway.
Sure, there may have been a few more people there than normal. The cameras and the reporters? Maybe they were new, here to capture the program on film or see the adorableness for themselves. Two men in suits, with groups of people following them and hanging on their every word? Seems awfully warm to wear a jacket in here, but maybe they’re here to play too.
The young athletes, ages three through seven, did not let any extra commotion get in the way. Maybe they did not realize that the men in suits were the Chairman of Special Olympics Dr. Tim Shriver, and a United States Senator, Missouri’s own Sen. Roy Blunt, who were visiting the program as the last stop of Shriver’s global inclusion tour. Or maybe they were too focused on throwing their beanbag into the hula-hoop.
Shriver visited this particular program as part of his aforementioned tour of seeing how Special Olympics impacts the world, ranging from the Vatican, to Austria, to Montreal and, finally, Kansas City and St. Louis. He wanted to visit Missouri to focus on examples of Healthy Athletes®, which provides people with intellectual disabilities free health screenings, and Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools, which uses sports, youth leadership and engagement to create inclusive school environments.
Missouri was chosen mainly because of the partnerships in health and education that have allowed SOMO’s Healthy Athletes® program to blossom, as well as collaborations with schools throughout the state and a 25 year partnership with the Missouri Association of Student Councils (MASC).
Shriver started the day with Sen.Blunt, a supporter of Special Olympics programming during his time in Congress, in Kansas City to speak with a panel about inclusion and youth engagement. The panel featured representatives from MASC, school teachers, SOMO athletes, coaches, unified partners and SOMO Board of Directors Chair and Superintendent of School in Carl Junction Dr. Phil Cook. The panel was highlighted by a story from Spencer Cantrell, a golfer for SOMO and student at Park Hill South High School, who shared that when he’s golfing, it’s more important to think about the next shot than worry about the previous shot.
After the morning in Kansas City, Blunt and Shriver were in St. Louis by lunchtime to visit the Young Athletes Program™. Since 2007, Special Olympics Missouri has taught children with intellectual disabilities that are too young for participation in the official program, but still focus on basic skills essential to cognitive development. These include physical activities that improve motor skills and hand-eye coordination, and how to apply these skills through sports programs.
Shriver and Blunt got to see the application of this program first hand, with 18 young athletes working in groups with 25 volunteers from Mehlville High School. The groups moved through five stations that allowed the young athletes to build their motor skills by tossing a beanbag into a hoop, catching a scarf on different parts of their body, playing “Red Light, Green Light”, conquering an obstacle course and bowling down the hallway.
It didn’t take long for the Special Olympics Chairman and U.S. Senator to drop their
formal titles and embrace their inner young athlete. The athletes’ infectious joy spread to Shriver and Blunt, who cheered them on as they made their way through the obstacle course and tried to keep up in intense rounds of Zombie Red Light Green Light. They shared in struggles, discovering how difficult it is to toss a scarf in the air and catch it on your stomach.
In 30 minutes that felt like five, everyone moved through the stations, each one more fun than the last. After it was all over, the group marched out of the room with Shriver gleefully bringing up the rear of the line, where he presented Blunt with a gold, silver and bronze medal from the 2015 World Games, and thanked everyone for a wonderful day in Missouri.
Having Shriver and Blunt spending their day visiting SOMO programs was a great honor, and extremely exciting for everyone involved. It was amazing to share the joy that our athletes provide on a daily basis to visitors and see them buy into the program almost immediately was an awesome sight.
In what should go down as an important day for Special Olympics Missouri, the most important part is that everyone got to play.