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.”