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 firstname.lastname@example.org.