|Raising a child with special needs can be a challenge for any parent. John and Sarah Bowen of St. Louis were willing to take on the challenge – and the privilege – when they adopted their son, Jonah.
“I can’t say it was easy,” Sarah said. “The whole adoption process itself can be emotional; and knowing that there’s a possibility that special needs could come up in the future definitely added to that chaos of adoption, but the first year with him was really good.”
Both John and Sarah have worked in the medical field and therefore had a better understanding of early warning signs for intellectual disabilities.
Despite the possibility of raising a child with special needs, John and Sarah wanted to provide the best care possible for their son.
Sarah recalled that he was “just a typical baby and it was pretty much at his first birthday that he crawled and we noticed that certain milestones weren’t being met. That went on from there to different doctors to figure out how we could help.”
One outlet that has helped both Jonah, 4, and his parents has been their involvement in the Young Athletes® Program provided by Special Olympics Missouri. YAP is a sport and play program designed for children ages 3-7. Depending on the location of the program, it’s typically a one-hour session that lasts between four to eight weeks twice a year.
The program is designed get kids active by participating in games that will help build skills toward eventual sports inclusion as they grow up. While the program falls under the Special Olympics umbrella of programs, it’s open to all children, not just those with intellectual disabilities.
John and Sarah have been able to gain a support system through YAP. They both had positive feedback about the Young Athletes Program and what it means to them: “In a way, I would say it’s hope,” Sarah said. “It’s invaluable. We cherish the time we get to spend with other parents because they may just be saying something off the cuff and it sparks an idea it’s like ‘Oh, yeah, maybe we should look into that.’
“The joy for me is seeing Jonah running around participating, smiling and having a good time, but there’s also selfishly the parent side of it that I can take a break for an hour and talk to other adults.”
John agreed, “There are resources and help out there … (shows you) that you’re not alone. Everybody has a little bit of a different situation, but there are things we can share and learn from each other and I think that’s a good resource in that aspect, too.”
While Jonah’s parents have been able to gain a support system, Jonah has been able to gain confidence both intellectually and athletically. His growth has not gone unnoticed by his parents.
“He was always just…I wouldn’t say he was afraid, but there was always that barrier that he couldn’t seem to get over, but being in the Young Athletes Program especially has helped him with his confidence in doing activities and different sports and stepping over that barrier and going for it,” Sarah said.
John said Jonah can be himself at YAP functions.
“The program allows him to express himself just because the program is so active and it keeps him going,” John said.
Those who are in charge of running the Young Athletes Program have also observed the ways in which the program has benefited the Bowen family. One of those individuals is the St. Louis Metro Area Program Outreach Manager Aimee Loyet.
“Jonah is one of my most exciting young athletes by far,” Loyet said. “He does – for being such a little person and a young man – have a huge personality and a knack at commanding an entire room and getting people to feel comfortable and happy. He’s such a bright young boy and I’ve seen so much growth in him over the last few years.”
Because of Jonah’s continued growth and the support from his parents, they have endless opportunities for their future involvement with Special Olympics Missouri.
“I see not only the family but Jonah being able to lead his peers and be involved with the Athlete Leadership Program and spreading the word of SOMO,” Loyet said. “He would be a great spokesperson to have such longevity with the program as he moves into adulthood.”
Loyet said the Young Athletes Program is more than just training children with intellectual disabilities. It’s also training families and parents on having a support group, friends and additional resources in a non-judgmental group of parents who are going through those same struggles.
To learn more details about a Young Athletes Program near you, please visit our website at www.somo.org.
There aren’t any perfect people in this world, but talk to some of Seth Dye’s coaches in Carthage and they’d tell anybody willing to listen that Dye comes pretty close to being the perfect SOMO athlete.
“Seth is kind, considerate, helpful and always tries his best,” said his coach of five years, Mary Frazier. “He always lends a helping hand to others. He has good work ethic and is a good friend to others.”
But Frazier said what really separates Dye from other SOMO athletes is that “he never gives up.”
“He has worked so hard to be the best that he can be.”
Melissa Reese, Dye’s mother, said he has grown so much over the years, but it hasn’t always been easy.
“Having a child with special needs has been an emotional roller coaster as a parent,” Reese said. “The first half of Seth’s life was all uncertainty and struggles – trying to help with school and after-school programs. And help in general for a parent at this time wasn’t an easy task.”
That’s where the Special Olympics program really helped change things for Reese and her son.
“But the second half has been a whole other story. … Special Olympics has taught him some amazing things… understanding autism and having a great doctor has made a huge impact. Seth has grown to (a degree) understand himself and how he is feeling,” Reese said.
“He is able to communicate much better on issues and problems he has. He has become much more social and loves meeting up with friends and just hanging out with other kids and young adults his age.”
Dye, who graduated from Carthage High School in 2013, said while he participates in bowling and track and field, basketball is his favorite SOMO sport.
“My favorite part about SOMO is the medals and friends,” Dye said.
Dye still competes with his fellow Carthage High School students at Special Olympics Missouri events.
Southwest Area Program Coordinator Stevie Lain said she wanted to highlight Dye not just because of his involvement with SOMO, but his push to help other people as well.
He recently ran in the Camp Barnabas Big Party Half Marathon and 5k, which raised money and awareness for people with disabilities.
Dye finished 7th in his age group of 19 and under and 77th out of 167 total runners.
“I spoke with Seth and his mom after the race,” Lain said, “he was very excited and looking forward to running again next year. He wants to get some of his fellow Carthage Special Olympics friends to join next time.”
For Reese, it all comes back to how SOMO has played an integral role in shaping her son’s life since his involvement began.
“Seth has grown into an amazing young man. He loves to help. Special Olympics has taught him so much,” Reese said. “He has learned that working hard toward goals has great rewards.”
One of the many great aspects about Special Olympics Missouri is how it breaks down stereotypes of people with intellectual disabilities.
Nobody is more emblematic of just how well our athletes can smash through those stereotypes with hard work and persistence than Southeast Area athlete Logan Gardner.
‘Continued to fight’
Gardner, 20, was playing sports with younger athletes in Sikeston because of his size until he was 15. That was until his mother Melody heard about Special Olympics Missouri.
“In Logan’s earlier years, it was hard,” Melody said regarding what it’s been like raising a child with special needs. “Logan had to have someone with him at all times. Logan struggled in school and the local community.
“But we continued to fight for him and let people know that Logan was a person as well and we weren’t going to sit back and let him be excluded. We continued to put him in sports and over time people have come to know him and accept him no matter what.”
Not only has SOMO taught Logan the meaning of sportsmanship and acceptance, but what is needed to excel in life disability or no.
Positivity is key
“Logan has grown and developed into a wonderful athlete that gives 110 percent,” Melody said. “He is a very positive person.”
The positivity is something others, including his coaches, have caught onto.
“He’s just one of the friendliest and happiest athletes we’ve got,” said bowling coach Peggy Berryhill. “He always wants to be around everybody. … He loves to joke around and always has a high-five for everybody no matter what’s going on.”
She said he’s always willing to listen to what you have to say even if he doesn’t always do what he’s told.
“He’s pretty hard-headed,” Berryhill, his coach of four years, said with a laugh. “He knows what he wants to do, but he’s very determined to stick with whatever is placed in front of him.”
Track and field coach Stan Smith said he would categorize Gardner as “squirrely.”
“He’s enthusiastic about doing things,” Smith said. “I’ve always found him friendly and willing to listen. He’s a lot of fun. … He’s real fun-loving – he jokes around with the guys.”
‘Willing to help’
Southeast Area Development Director Penny Williams said Gardner is one of the best multi-sport athletes in the area citing that he participates in basketball, bowling, softball, track and field and tennis.
“He is a team leader among all of his teammates. Logan is a very kind-hearted person who has given as much to the program as much as the program has given to him,” Williams said. “He is always willing to help in any way that he can. His kind attitude becomes reflected in everyone he comes in contact with.”
One such way that Gardner shows his dedication in giving back to the program that serves him is by taking part in the annual Polar Plunge in Cape Girardeau as a part of the Sikeston Guns N Hose team.
When they first heard about the Plunge four years ago, Melody said they thought it was a great way “for Logan to show others that athletes can give back just as much as anyone.”
“So we rallied together and took the chance,” she said. “He loved it and this year was the only athlete in our local area to Plunge.”
Gardner said he Plunges because “it’s fun,” but has no shame in admitting it’s “cold, cold water.”
As much as Gardner loves competing in sports, especially his favorite sport bowling, there might be one thing he enjoys even more.
“He enjoys his sports,” Berryhill said, “but he has a good time at the dance; he loves to dance.”
Because, Gardner said, they allow him to “party all night long.”
This is the first in a series of stories compiled by Special Olympics Missouri to highlight those people within the organization who are doing great things. The Special Olympics Missourian of the Month will highlight an athlete, coach, family or volunteer who the SOMO staff members believe embody what the mission is all about. This month, the Central Area has singled out athlete Justin Baker of Bunceton as the October Special Olympics Missourian of the Month.
Athletes aren’t supposed to be artistic.
Artists aren’t supposed to be athletic.
Individuals with intellectual disabilities aren’t supposed to be good at anything.
Justin Baker defies the traditional narrative.
At 26 years old, Baker is one of the most competitive athletes in the whole Central Area. Sure, most Special Olympics Missouri athletes are competitive by nature, but according to his coach, Lori Woods, Baker takes it to another level.
“What really sets him apart from the other athletes in the program is mainly his competitiveness,” Woods said. “He really wants to excel at everything he does. He likes to better himself.”
Judy Baker, Justin’s grandmother with whom he lives, said that competitive spirit has really been stoked and enhanced by participating in Special Olympics Missouri.
“SOMO has given him competition and that’s just great!” Judy said. “He’s committed to it and looks forward to it very much.”
But as competitive as Baker is, those around him say that he doesn’t let that affect his attitude toward other people.
Woods, Baker’s coach of more than 10 years, said he relishes the fact that his peers look up to him.
“He’s fun-loving, friendly and really likes to be a leader with his peers,” said Woods. “The main thing for him is for his peers to look up to him. They’re always competing against him in bowling and he enjoys teaching them.”
That lead-first attitude is also on display at Unlimited Opportunities Inc., where Baker worked part-time for a number of years before graduating from Bunceton High School. He has since taken a full-time job in the recycling department where Recycling Manager Kit Brewer has had the opportunity to work with Baker.
“He’s just a very happy-go-lucky guy. He’s a really hard worker,” Brewer said. “He’s a guy that likes to work on all of our different processing lines and he’s certified on nearly every machine.
“He’s always willing to help and when we have a new person in here that needs to be taught how a machine works, he’s the first guy there to teach them.”
Another way SOMO has helped Baker blossom is through trying new and exciting things even those closest to him are surprised he’d try.
“He’s one of those people who won’t even get up on a ladder,” his grandmother said with a chuckle. “It shocked me he was going to do this, but he said, ‘I told them I promised I’d do it so I’m gonna do it!’ Justin was so nonchalant about it.”
Baker spent his day off rappelling down the Jefferson State Office Building in Jefferson City Oct. 12 as part of the SOMO fundraiser with Over the Edge. All of the money raised directly supported other SOMO athletes.
“Diane Brimer (Central Area Director) had a sponsor (Diamond Pet Foods) who donated the money to get any athlete to go over and she thought of Justin,” Woods said. “I asked him and he was pretty nervous, but he did it. We were surprised, but so proud.”
Of everything that Baker has accomplished, Judy and the Baker family are most impressed with how helpful and outgoing Justin has become.
“If he can help somebody, he is wonderful,” Judy said. “He likes to help people. He teaches some of the other athletes and is proud of that. He’ll do anything anybody ever asks him.”
In addition to excelling at sports such as bowling and track and field, Baker is a rather accomplished artist as well.
“He’s a really good artist,” Woods said. “He loves to draw. One of his goals … he says he likes to play that guitar so his goal is to become famous in the music industry.”
Brewer said Baker will often bring in some of his sketches to share with his co-workers.
“He also really enjoys writing poetry and song lyrics. It’s nice to see how he likes to write poetry and song lyrics. He’s a very talented guy,” Brewer said.
Growing up is never easy.
It’s not easy on the person doing the growing nor is it easy on the family dealing with said person.
Since Baker started participating in Special Olympics Missouri more than 10 years ago, Judy said she’s seen a transition in him that was helped along because of SOMO.
“It’s a learning experience for all of us,” Judy said about raising a child with special needs. “We encourage him to do things, new things. I think he’s grown up a lot.”
One such recent instance of having to grow up is that Baker has been working for several years toward getting his driver’s license.
“He had a hard time getting his driver’s permit, but he finally got that and we’re going for the license now,” Judy said. “He drives with me on his way to and from work every day.
“We have family that really encourages him too. They all know his situation and like to encourage him.”
Judy said it hasn’t always been easy though.
“It’s sad that the circumstances he’s in, but we make the best of it,” she said. “He has his days sometimes, but we’ll let him know what he did wrong and talk to him about why he did this or said that; we talk it out.
“Practice makes it better.”
Judy said having such a close-knit family really helps.
The driver’s license will be one big step toward independence, but Judy said the biggest step for Baker could be right around the corner.
“He is looking forward to the day where he can get his own car and be off on his own,” she said. “That day might be coming sooner rather than later.
“We are incredibly proud of him and everything he has accomplished.”
That growth and maturity has also been seen by Brewer at work.
“Justin is still growing now. He’s a young guy and his personality and maturity level are still forming,” Brewer said.
Woods who, in addition to being his coach, is also the human resources manager at Baker’s work, said he takes his job very seriously; that wasn’t always the case though.
“He was in our children’s program when he was younger… he was kind of rambunctious as a kid, but he’s grown up so fast and now he’s a very dedicated person,” Woods said.
Judy said having a job has really brought the best out of Baker as well.
“At first he was really ‘It’s my way or forget it’ at work, but I think he’s learned to have more respect for his co-workers and bosses,” she said. “He respects them now because he knows what they say is right.”
From talking to Brewer, that respect goes both ways.
“I just hope that everybody knows what an effervescent personality he has. He always has a smile from ear to ear every time you see him,” Brewer said. “Not that he doesn’t take what he does seriously, but he’s just a happy guy.
“Everybody here on the crew enjoys having him around and we can count on him to keep that attitude up. That’s probably why someone nominated him (for the Special Olympics Missourian of the Month).
“You can’t help but smile with him around.”
Meet this week’s featured athlete in our SOMO Spotlight: Sierra Simmons!
Meet the September 25 SOMO featured athlete: Sarah Byland from Columbia!
Meet SOMO athlete Rachel Jackson from Russellville: