Looking Back: 1978 Softball Tournament

Gary Brimer is the Chief Sports Officer for SOMO. He has been on staff for 17 years. Prior to that, he was a volunteer area director and a coach. He can be reached at brimer@somo.org. This post is part of a series of posts that look back on SOMO’s 40-year history.

I remember the first-ever Special Olympics Softball Tournament held in Missouri. It was the summer of 1978 in the middle of July in Hannibal. We had received a letter asking us if we were interested in playing in a Special Olympics Softball Tournament. Softball wasn’t even an official sport in Missouri Special Olympics, but of course our team was ready to play anything, so we began practicing.

I still wonder how I ever made it through those early years. Only a handful of the kids had their own gloves. Most had never even held a bat. Asking them to throw a ball was out of the question. But they wanted to play, so we worked twice week for as long as I could stand it.

And so we traveled the nearly three hours to Hannibal in three vehicles full of some of the most obnoxious, loud, wonderful, hilarious and loving kids. It was hot and we were ever so glad to arrive at our designated housing for the next two nights, until we found out where we were staying.

It had been arranged for all of the teams to stay in a primitive Boy Scout camp. There we stayed in log cabins with no electricity and only one source of running water in the entire campground.

The kids were thrilled. We ate hamburgers and hot dogs cooked over a wood fire, with chips and sodas. Later on we had s’mores. It was fun until we had to go bed. We only had one flashlight, and as I said this place was very primitive. After I had walked all of the groups to their cabins, because they would ONLY go with me in case of a bear attack, I finally walked my group to their cabin.

We spent half the night answering questions about each sound that was heard or that they thought they heard and the other half of the night walking someone to the bathroom, which was the nearest tree or bush.

Finally, morning arrived and we ate cold cereal with milk for breakfast. Then it was time to play. I think there were five teams that ended up playing that first year. There were no divisions, we just played each other. I think we played three games that first day and I know we won all of them.

That night we had McDonald’s hamburgers and fries with orange drink. The fries were cold and limp and the burgers were four hours old, but they were free. The worst part was going back to the cabins with a bunch of stinky kids and no showers. The best part was that they were too tired to worry about noises, but we still had to walk them into the woods to go to the bathroom.

The next morning we had more cold cereal and milk and back to the field. We won our last game and then had to play in the championship. The team we were to play had been our toughest competition and they had not yet played that day.

We won by few runs, but the biggest excitement was the triple play we turned that took what seemed like 15 minutes.

With runners on first and second and no outs, our shortstop caught a fly ball (1 out), but both runners took off on the hit and the batter ran to first. The shortstop ran over and tagged the runner at third (2 outs) and then threw the ball back to our pitcher. I immediately yelled for our pitcher to throw the ball to first base.

Of course the other coach was yelling at his player on second to return to first. And all the while I begged and pleaded with our pitcher to throw the ball to first to no avail. Finally I asked why she wouldn’t throw it to first, and amidst all of the uproar, she told me that I had not told her why she should throw it to first. So, of course I began to explain it to her. Finally she understood and threw the ball to first, while the poor runner at second just stood there so proud for advancing, and we completed a triple play.

Later, after receiving our trophy, our athletes decided they were going to try playing softball again maybe, as long as it wasn’t so hot. And then we drove home with the stinkiest bunch of kids I have ever been with, but they were also the happiest.

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Promoting Health Beyond Sports

Diannah White is the Chief Communications Officer for SOMO. She has worked here 17 years and can be reached at dwhite@somo.org. This post is part of a series of posts that look back on SOMO’s 40-year history.

Excellence in life and in sports depends on good health. In Special Olympics, we take this very seriously. 

The Special Olympics movement was founded on a mission to provide sports training and athletic competition to children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Our vision goes beyond the sports field and into improving the quality of life of our athletes. We’ve seen research that shows participation in our program leads to better performance at school, work and home. Now we know we can affect their health as well.

The doctors found that William was nearly legally blind. His eyesight was so bad that to improve his vision, he would need three different prescriptions, each one stronger than the other before he would be able to see correctly.”

Special Olympics, Inc. commissioned a Special Report on the Health Status and Needs of Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities. The report identified areas that, if made available, could improve the quality and length of life for Special Olympics athletes. The findings showed that as few as 30% of patients with intellectual disabilities receive care from medical specialists, even though it is estimated 92% of them need specialty care related to eyesight, oral health and heart disease.

Special Olympics, Inc. came up with a solution: Healthy Athletes was launched in 1996 as a means to promote better health for our athletes and bring attention to the lack of health care for those with intellectual disabilities.

Here at home, with the prompting of then-board chair Naomi Cupp of Columbia, we began offering Healthy Athlete initiatives in 2003. Since SOMO began offering the screenings, 541 dentists, hygienists, optometrists, opticians, audiologists, physical therapists, nurses and physical therapy assistants from all over Missouri have donated their time.

The Healthy Athlete disciplines we offer in Missouri include:

Special Smiles is a dental screening to detect cavities and other oral health issues. In 2010, 20% of athletes going through Special Smiles needed follow-up care because of pain or decay. In contrast, slightly more than 2% of all US employed adults reported that their last trip to the dentist was because of pain of a toothache. This initiative is made possible by the Missouri Dental Association.

One of the questions that the volunteer dentists ask each athlete is who their dentist is. More often than not they hear, “You are.” This is the only dental screening many of our athletes will get due to financial restrictions.

FunFitness is a screening to assess and improve flexibility, strength and balance. Athletes are moved through a variety of stations all run by volunteer physical therapists from the MO Physical Therapy Association. Athletes take exercise ideas home with them to incorporate into their training.

Health Promotion is a screening which looks at the overall health of the athlete. We own our own bone density machine to check for early stages of osteoporosis. As well, this discipline checks BMI and provides education on nutrition and sun safety. On average, 60% of our athletes are identified as obese and receive education to improve their diet.

Healthy Hearing is relatively new to our offerings but it has fast become a huge asset. Athletes receive a hearing test by trained audiologists. As may as 28% failed their hearing tests in 2011. This program is led by the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Missouri State University.

Opening Eyes is the most comprehensive screening we offer. This entire program is done in cooperation with Lions Club International. Coordinated by the Missouri Optometric Association, this is a complete vision screening like you would receive at a doctor’s office.

On average, 43% of SOMO athletes who have been through our Opening Eyes vision screening over the past eight years have needed and received a new or updated prescription and free eyewear. Athletes who don’t need prescription eyeglasses all get to take a free pair of designer sunglasses.

We have seen the most dramatic success with this program. William Johnson, an outfielder from Kansas City, is living proof. William would look one way and throw the ball the other way. His coach took him through our very first Opening Eyes screening. The doctors found that William was nearly legally blind. His eyesight was so bad that to improve his vision, he would need three different prescriptions, each one stronger than the other before he would be able to see correctly. Through the Opening Eyes program, he got three pairs of glasses and now when he looks one way he can also throw that way!

Fit Feet is a free podiatric screening for participating Special Olympics athletes evaluating ankles, feet, lower extremity biomechanics, and proper shoe and sock gear. We hope to host our first screening at our 2012 Summer Games.

As an added bonus, every $1 spent for Healthy Athlete Programs returns $5 in pro-bono services thanks to the great partnerships with health care professionals.  These screenings are provided through partnerships with licensed healthcare professionals at the Missouri Optometric Association, Missouri Dental Association, Missouri Physical Therapy Association and others. Special Olympics serves as the largest provider of health screenings in the world. 

We take the health of our athletes very seriously. Consider ways you can support Healthy Athletes. Professional healthcare volunteers are always needed as is funding of offset the costs to offer the screenings.

Looking back: 1975 Area Spring Games

Gary Brimer is the Chief Sports Officer for SOMO. He has been on staff for 17 years. Prior to that, he was a volunteer area director and a coach. He can be reached at brimer@somo.org. This post is part of a series of posts that look back on SOMO’s 40-year history.

My first event was the Area X Spring Games in Marshall, Missouri. I was in my early 20s, a little afraid of what I had gotten myself into, and I had no idea what to expect. We pulled into the parking lot in our yellow school bus along with about 10 or so other school buses, vans and cars. Some had signs in the windows that said “Go for the Gold,” “Good Luck Johnny, Billy, Martha, Kenny,” etc.

There were people everywhere it seemed, Most were wearing jackets and coats, because it was cool for that time in April. Most of them were kids, some younger and some older. A few were adults.

We headed for the gate to football field. We were on the campus of Missouri Valley College. Some college kids dressed as clowns met us at the gate handing out balloons and candy. One young college girl led us to a section in the bleachers and asked to sit there.

It seemed like there was lots of activity everywhere and most of it chaos. A band came marching in and all of the kids cheered. Pretty soon a lady stood up in front of us and welcomed us to Missouri Valley College and the 4th Annual Area X Special Olympics Spring Games. She was the area director and thanked the Missouri Valley College students for planning and volunteering at these games and the administration for allowing the use of the track. Someone from the college spoke and then announced, “Let the games begin!”

I watched in awe at what seemed to be a 3-ring circus. Kids were running races on both sides of the track. One side seemed to be the 100-yard dash, while the other had to be the 50-yard dash. On the infield, kids were throwing softballs, and on one side of the infield, there were kids jumping into the long jump pit.

A few wore gym shorts, but most wore blue jeans. Many had tennis shoes, but some just had regular shoes. A few wore their jackets while they competed because of the chill. Most just wore T-shirts, but some had button shirts on.

The awards area was in front of the main bleachers. There was an awards stand, and off to one side was a table piled high with multi-colored ribbons. Some student volunteers were there and one had a bullhorn. They would call out a heat number and bring the kids out and stand them on the awards stand or on the ground nearby. The guy with bull horn would announce the winners.

That is when it all came together for me. I understood what this meant. Each kid received an award whether they were first or last. Their broad smiles, shining eyes and puffed out chests made all my doubts dissolve. I knew why I had come. It was to see this wonderful moment when a Special Olympics athlete felt like a national champion.

Youth Today are the Leaders Tomorrow

Trish Lutz is the Area Services Director for SOMO. You can reach her at lutz@somo.org.

How many times have you heard the statement, “Youth today are the leaders tomorrow”?  How many times have you really thought about the impact that young people have on our world?  Do you think back to when you were young (or younger) and what you did to make a difference, be the change or step up and lead?  Here are a few examples of the young people I have been blessed to work with in my 17 years on staff who are stepping up as leaders to be the change and make a difference.

Brandon
Brandon is a high school student in a small community in Southwest Missouri.  One day as he was walking through the hall he noticed a girl he had gone to school with since kindergarten, we’ll call her Lucy.  Lucy has an intellectual disability.  Brandon noticed that everyone always said hi to Lucy in the hallways and people were never mean to her, but what bothered him was no one really TALKED to Lucy.  No one invited her to sit with them at lunch or go to the football game on Friday night.  He began to wonder how he could be the change and make a difference in Lucy’s life.  He did research and found out that Special Olympics offers Partners Clubs ®.  Partners Clubs® bring together high school students with Special Olympics athletes in a setting to provide sports skills training and competition on a regular basis. Partners Clubs® members may spend additional time together enjoying other social and recreational activities in the school and community.  Brandon made a proposal to his school and started his own Partners Club.  His goal is to make sure Lucy and other individuals with intellectual disabilities are included in activities at his school, including sitting together at lunch or going to the football game on Friday nights.

Elizabeth
When I first met Elizabeth, she was about four years old and would tag along with her mom to Special Olympics events and meetings.  Her mom is a Special Olympics coach and always involved Elizabeth with her team. When Elizabeth turned eight, she became a Unified Partner in bowling and basketball.  As she got into her teenage years, Elizabeth started to get busy with interscholastic sports (she is an amazing softball player) and had to cut back on her Unified Sports.  She now helps coach the teams and plans to become a head coach as soon as she turns 18.  In the meantime, Elizabeth serves on the SOMO Youth Activation Committee.  She is one of the first official members.  Through her leadership on SOMO YAC she, along with her friend and Special Olympics athlete, Jared, started the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign at their high school when she was just a freshman.  Elizabeth continues to be the change by taking a stand against the r-word.    She is making a difference in her school and community as a leader to promote unity and respect for all.

Julie
Julie began her Special Olympics career in high school serving on the planning committee for an event they held at her school in a suburb of St. Louis.  Julie spent her summers babysitting for a family with two children with autism.  She fell in love with working with individuals with intellectual disabilities and decided to major in Special Education in college.  When applying to colleges, one of her prerequisites was that she could still remain involved with Special Olympics.  Upon her acceptance to Truman State University she immediately contacted the local organization on campus that planned and organized the Northeast Area Spring Games.  By the time she was a junior, she was the chair of the planning committee and remained the chair for two years.  She also helped coach the local program.  It was during this time that she received the statewide Outstanding Volunteer award, one of the youngest recipients ever!

Julie is now a Special Education teacher in the Kansas City Metro area.  She coaches Special Olympics in her school district and attended the 2010 National Games as a track coach.  Julie’s passion for her students and athletes is immeasurable.  Many of her former athletes in Kirksville are her friends and they come and visit her in Kansas City often.  In fact, Max was even an usher at her wedding! 

Julie and her husband are expecting their first child in January.  I am betting that little Austin will be volunteering for Special Olympics shortly after his arrival!  I’m pretty positive youth leadership is hereditary!

SOMO Youth Activation Committee (YAC)
There are about 30 young people ages 11 to 21 who serve on the SOMO YAC.  They are athletes and partners that work together to lead their schools and communities to be the change and make a difference.  They are promoting an inclusive school environment where everyone is accepted and respected.  They are true examples of acceptance, respect and friendship.  The friendships they have developed across the state will last a lifetime.  They ARE leaders, they are SOMO leaders. 

Patricia
Patricia began her involvement with Special Olympics when she was 14 years old (that was 28 years ago – I’ll let you do the math!).  She helped coach Special Olympics athletes in aquatics.  When she was in high school, it was different.  Individuals with intellectual disabilities were in a classroom down the hall.  You never saw them at lunch and they certainly weren’t nominated for homecoming queen or king.  It wasn’t “cool” to volunteer for Special Olympics.  Now, you aren’t cool if you don’t volunteer!  Patricia didn’t really have the opportunities youth do today to get as involved, but when she graduated from college she got a job with the greatest organization ever – SPECIAL OLYMPICS MISSOURI (if you haven’t guessed – Patricia is me – Trish Lutz, Area Services Director).

So as adults, are you ready for our youth today to be the leaders of tomorrow?  If so, then guide them in the right direction and give them a voice to be the change.

Looking back: Twenty years with SOMO

SOMO athlete Larry Stephens with Mark Musso at a bowling event

Mark Musso has served as President & CEO of Special Olympics Missouri since September 1991.

I was asked by our communications team to blog about my first 20 years with SOMO…How am I supposed to cover all that has happened in the past two decades in a few paragraphs? Thanks to an event I was honored to serve on the planning team for – I now have some answers. We taped the History of the U.S. Programs at the beautiful Eunice Kennedy Shriver Complex in New Jersey last week, and it was during that taping I was reminded of the really important milestones since my first involvement as a high school freshman in 1972 in Hutchinson, Kansas.

Mark Musso, center, with Hall of Fame athletes Jane Howell and Shirley Shattuck

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By example, they show us how to live our lives not every day, but every second.

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When I was first asked to help at an event, I was a young Key Club member, and the Reno County ARC made a presentation asking for volunteers to help run a “retarded track meet.” Dear Lord, how long ago that was in so many ways. Upon my arrival to an event that was chaotic, disorganized and without any spectators, I began to meet my first-ever friends from Special Olympics. That day began to change my life due to the many lessons I would learn from these new friends.

I left Gowans Stadium that day with a sense of “rightness” during a time filled with many wrongs. As I began to attend more events I learned there were those who “got it” and many more who didn’t have a clue. Moving to Wichita State University, I continued my involvement on the Kansas Special Olympics Summer Games GMT (games management team). The number of folks who “got it” continued to grow, including Chief Richard LaMunyon who started the Law Enforcement Torch Run during that time.

Upon moving to Minnesota, I began my paid career with Special Olympics as the games operations director for the 1991 International Summer Games – there were thousands of people who “got it” there. After a brief stop as Minnesota’s executive director, I came to the Show-Me state in 1991 and began my time as SOMO president. In the early days, we (Board Chair Ralph Biele and I) made some major changes that resulted in identification of those who “got it” and those who never would. We asked the latter group to find another organization to dedicate themselves to and never looked back.

Former Board Chairman Dave Pudlowski, SOMO athlete Gordon Barnes and Mark Musso at a softball event

In these last two decades, I have learned the same lessons my colleagues shared during the taping of the History of Special Olympics recently. Once you “got it,” you realized it was about these incredible athletes teaching so many life lessons that many never learn. By example, they show us how to live our lives not every day, but every second. It’s about pure joy, honesty, laughter, compassion, acceptance and celebration of every second the good Lord has given us on this earth. Spend an afternoon with our Special Olympics athletes, and life seems much more important and easier when we forget all the junk we tend to fret over.

All who have been fortunate enough to “get it” know that you can live your life with purpose and passion. For me, Special Olympics has given me these two most important aspects of life and I will forever be indebted to the thousands of athletes I have had the honor to meet. As Tim Shriver told me recently – we all must keep the spirit alive. I hope to do that for many more years. I am honored to be a part of the SOMO team during this our 40th anniversary.