My SOMO Story: Megan Neighbors

Megan Neighbors, left, with a SOMO athlete and Board Member Jeanie Byland

I grew up with a few cousins in the program.  At the time, I thought Special Olympics was just an activity for them, the same way other cousins played in little league or attended summer camp.  I wasn’t uncomfortable around my cousins or people with disabilities because I grew up around them, even though we didn’t see each other often.   I never really gave much thought to how Special Olympics impacted the lives of the athletes, much less the lives of the coaches, volunteers and staff.  Then I started working for Special Olympics Missouri 10 years ago and had the chance to see firsthand the impact the program has on the lives of everyone involved.  I thought to myself, “How much difference can sports really make in someone’s life?”  As it turns out, sports and the teamwork and interaction that are involved can make a HUGE difference.   Special Olympics has taught our athletes acceptance, pride, courage, and social skills. My cousins have blossomed, thanks to the boost in confidence and new skills they have learned.

Our athletes have become celebrities to me.  I am always excited to see them, say hello, and meet new athletes every chance I get.  Unlike so many famous people these days, our athletes are heroes you can believe in.  They model strength, determination, perseverance and honesty.  They don’t care if you are having a bad hair day or have a huge pimple on your chin; they are instant friends who accept you for who you are, regardless of appearance or ability.  Our athletes are always ready with a high five and hugs and are full of excitement to tell you all about what’s going on in their lives.  They face challenges and struggles daily, and yet I never hear them complain about it.  They have taught me to be grateful for the blessings I’ve been given and love myself for who I am.   One of my favorite Irish proverbs is, “Dance as if no one were watching.  Sing as if no one were listening. Live every day as if it were your last.”  Our athletes live this!  Spend five minutes at a Special Olympics dance and you will learn about letting go of your silly reservations, as well as probably pick up a few new dance moves!  Watch an athlete cross the finish line after a tough race and see the joy of accomplishment light up their face.  Feel the glow of pride as they walk away from the awards stands with their medals clinking together.   If you want to learn how to enjoy life to the fullest, our athletes are wonderful teachers.

Athlete Derek Sandbothe once said to me, “Special Olympics has taught me that I can do anything that ORDINARY people can do.”  It struck me that he described non-disabled people as “ordinary,” and then I realized that our athletes are extraordinary, and that he had come to realize that he is valued and special.  THAT’S the difference that sports and Special Olympics can make in someone’s life.

Megan Neighbors is SOMO’s Data Analyst. You can reach her at neighbors@somo.org.

Sharing Special Olympics with a new generation of fans

I have been so blessed to be a part of Special Olympics Missouri in many different ways.  I have been a volunteer, a coach, a member of the Games Management Team, a fan and a friend.  But I think the best way I have ever been involved is as a teacher.  I am a special education teacher in Springfield, Missouri, and I have had the wonderful opportunity to take my entire school to cheer on the amazing athletes at the State Summer Games.  To see how excited the students from my school were about going to Special Olympics is something I will never forget.  For two years, we were able to take about 150 students to cheer on the athletes as they competed in track and field events.  A lot of the students at my school did not have a lot of knowledge of Special Olympics.  I have one student, Madison, who has participated in the track events at the summer games since she was eight years old.  The students had listened to her share her stories of the games and saw her medals, but they did not quite understand how inspiring these athletes can be until they experienced it first hand.

So in May 2010, our school attended our first Summer Games, which was held at Missouri State University.  To say that I was touched by the way the students from my school interacted with the athletes and cheered them to victory would be a huge understatement.  I was surprised by how vocal and involved the kids were.  They cheered from the moment we got there until we left, and they made sure that all the athletes knew we were proud of them.  Many of the athletes came over after their event to talk to our students.  Everyone was so excited and accepting of each other.  The best moment of the day came at about 1:30 when our Madison was competing in the softball throw.  Our group was so loud and we could all see Madison beaming at us from the field.  She was so excited to share something that she was amazing at with everyone at her school.  She ended up getting a silver medal in the event and got to show off her medals to all of her friends and classmates.

Special Olympics has such a special place in my heart, and I love that I got to share the experience and plant a seed of acceptance and love in the students at my school.  I see their incredible acceptance and love of my students every day.  The lessons they learned by going to Special Olympics will stay with them long after they leave our school.

Katie Burrows is a volunteer and teacher in Springfield, Mo.