SOMO(ian) of the Month: Justin Baker, Athlete (Central Area)

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.


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Justin Baker waves to the camera at the 2013 Central Area Spring Games Track and Field competition.

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.”

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Baker, second from left, enjoys the company of his co-workers while at work at Unlimited Opportunities Inc. Baker, 26, has worked in the recycling department there since he graduated from high school.

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.”

Justin Baker

Baker poses for a photo with SOMO Partnership Manager Stacy Jones on Oct. 12 while at the Over the Edge event in Jefferson City.

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.

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Baker, far right, poses for a photo with his fellow bowling teammates at a competition in 2008.

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.”

Coaches are at the center of the Special Olympics Missouri movement

Most people know the saying: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”

This disparaging adage about teachers and coaches doesn’t give people who dedicate their lives to educate and empower others enough credit. Special Olympics coaches are appreciated not just because of the dedication to their craft, but also for their willingness and patience to work with another forgotten and disparaged community — people with intellectual disabilities.

Obviously, the athletes are the blood of Special Olympics Missouri — the reason for the program — but the coaches are the arteries; they are the reason it is able to serve more than 16,700 athletes around the state of Missouri on a yearly basis.

SOMO simply couldn’t function without its coaches.

Two coaches who are really making a difference in mid-Missouri are Terri Hilt and Laura Wacker.

Different paths, same destination
Hilt and Wacker have been coaching or assisting with SOMO for 13 and 8 years respectively. While they’re now both coaching alongside each other on the Mid-Missouri Tiger Sharks swim team, they took different paths to get where they are today.

Hilt’s brother has been a Special Olympics athlete for more than 20 years. After seeing how much fun her brother had, Hilt wanted in on the action and has been doing it for the past 13 years.

“The athletes are my reason to keep doing it,” Hilt said. “If you’re having a bad day they can brighten you up. They’re always happy to see you. It’s like one huge family.”

Wacker has been a swimming coach for more than 30 years at high schools around Columbia and Stephens College, which is where she first started helping with SOMO athletes eight years ago.

After the Stephens College pool closed a few years ago, Wacker said SOMO was in need of another coach for the team.

“My (swimming team members) would work with some of the Special Olympics athletes as part of a giving project they did,” Wacker said. “That was just the beginning and I just kept working with them.

“There are these really great instances of joy while coaching. That’s not the kind of thing you have with every swim team. I have done it for two winters now and it’s been an awesome experience,” she said with a smile from ear to ear.

“I like working with athletes that are really willing to work. I like that the athletes are willing to be the best they can be and are very dedicated. They are very appreciative of the success they do have and really enjoy participating.”

Patience, not expertise, is key
With 21 Olympic-type sports offered by SOMO, there is something for everyone — athletes and coaches alike.

Both Wacker and Hilt agreed it doesn’t matter how much or little you know about a sport when you agree to become a SOMO coach. The SOMO coaching department has plenty of resources available to help new coaches understand a sport and its rules.

Terri Hilt, left, with her Unified Bocce team of Beth Brokamp, Sarah Byland and Jeanie Byland

Terri Hilt, left, with her Unified Bocce team of Beth Brokamp, Sarah Byland and Jeanie Byland

“I don’t really know all of the fundamentals, but I had wonderful assistants to help me with the things I don’t know and then I help them tweak that to apply it to the athletes,” Hilt said.

Having patience and the ability to quickly change lessons and adapt them to athletes’ needs are both more important to coaching than knowing the sport itself, according to Wacker and Hilt.

“You have to think outside of the box,” Hilt said. “You can’t be straight forward. If something isn’t working, you have to be willing to adapt.”

Wacker said, “I’ve been a coach of swimming for 30 years now, so I’m used to the scenario of coaching, but Special Olympics added another element. Not all of your instructions are going to be understood the first time. You might tell an athlete to do something and … they’ll take off and do whatever they think it is.

“You have to understand that each athlete is different and needs to be able to understand what you’re trying to convey — for each person, that’s going to be different. You might have to give instructions 10 different ways for everybody to understand what it is.”

A great way to help some of the athletes is leading with someone who has comprehended the instructions to show the others just how it is done, she said.

Hilt stressed the importance of really pushing the athletes past where they, and so many others, even thought they could go.

“A lot of coaches think (the athletes) are so cute — and that they can get away with anything,” Hilt said. “The athletes know that and will walk all over you if you let them, but I tell coaches to push the athletes. Because if you push them, they will (succeed).”

All in all, incoming coaches aren’t expected to know everything about their sport or even coaching in general; all of that can be taught to the coaches.

“It’s a real learning experience,” Hilt said. “I knew a lot because I grew up with my brother, but I didn’t know everything. I didn’t know how Special Olympics worked. Just getting involved doing volunteer work and at fundraisers … the more you get involved the more you benefit.”

Family ties
Whether you’re a coach, an athlete or a family, being involved with Special Olympics Missouri is like being a part of one big family. You aren’t alone in any of this.

In order for this kind of relationship to thrive, trust and communication are important at every level.

Leanna Krogmann with coach Laura Wacker

Leanna Krogmann with coach Laura Wacker

“There’s a lot of communication that goes on between parents and coaches and athletes…,” Wacker said. “A lot of times athletes aren’t able to convey what they’d like to achieve with you as much as they are with their parents. So you work with the athlete and the parent to kind of figure out their goals.”

“The parents are great resources in your coaching.”

Leanna Krogman, 29, has been a SOMO athlete since 2004; her mother Connie Dewey attributes most of the positive changes in her daughter’s life to SOMO and its coaches.

“She is much more outgoing and has developed social skills due to her involvement in Special Olympics,” Dewey said of her daughter.

“The experience offered by the activities has given her joy and happiness, providing endless opportunities to stay active and involved.”

As for the coaches, Dewey said Leanna, who swims for Wacker and Hilt, hangs on their every word.

“She truly looks up to them and thrives when she sees that they believe in her abilities,” she said.

“I appreciate their individual attention toward Leanna helping her to see her full potential. They can get her to do things a parent could never get their child to do!”

Why they do what they do
In all of her years of coaching swimming, Wacker said she has never been around a group of athletes who are just as happy cheering on their teammates as they are if they won themselves.

“They’re just very supportive of each other at practice and at meets,” Wacker said. “I coached high school swimming too and a lot of times we had to really tell the other athletes to cheer for the other people in the water and remind them they have teammates that need cheering.

“You don’t ever have to remind Special Olympics athletes to cheer for anyone else. They’re constantly cheering for their teammates. It’s one of their sources of joy as well as winning. They like to be cheered for, but they really like to cheer for other people.”

Looking back and seeing how far some of the athletes have come even in only a couple of years is what Hilt said keeps her coming back week after week to every practice and competition.

“I have an athlete in swimming right now — he started (two years ago) and was a real rope hugger,” Hilt said. “And now he’s 10 and swimming (100 meters consistently). The first time he got in the pool and swam a 25-meter, I cried. It was so hard to get him to swim and do all of the strokes that I cried the first time I saw him fly down the pool.

“To see them accomplish what most doctors told them they wouldn’t be able to do … it’s just awesome.”

To find out more information on becoming a Special Olympics coach, go to

Annual Award Winners

Each year, we recognize those who have made significant contributions to our program. Areas announce their winners at Area Spring Games, and the statewide winners are unveiled at the Opening Ceremonies of our State Summer Games. Here are this year’s honorees.

Outstanding Volunteer

  • Charlie Aiken, Southwest Area
  • Dana Griesinger, Central Area
  • Elizabeth Janes, Northeast Area
  • Bill Morrow, Kansas City Metro Area
  • Jen Rose, Southeast Area
  • Kaylee Schoenfelder, Northwest Area
  • Rose Schwendemann, St. Louis Metro Area

This year’s Outstanding Volunteer is Rose Schwendemann. Rose comes to us from Shop ‘n Save, where she was the Manager of Front End Operations. Shop ‘n Save is one of our biggest partners, which you already know if you’ve been to any events in the St. Louis Metro Area. They do an incredible job of raising funds and awareness for Special Olympics Missouri, and Rose is cut from the same cloth.

She volunteered to be Shop ‘n Save’s “champion,” or point person, for our annual Wheels for Winners Raffle in 2010. She liked it so much that she returned as a champion for the raffle again in 2011. She played a key role in distributing raffle tickets, logging sold tickets, and scheduling times to have the 2011 Camaro parked in their store to boost sales. Her husband, Terry, and son, Jason, have gotten involved in the effort as well, volunteering with Rose to pick up the Camaro an hour and half away.

Rose became known for her elaborate, color-coded Wheels for Winners calendar in her office. Her goal was to beat the previous year’s Raffle total of $25,000. Well, thanks to Rose’s hard work, the 2011 Raffle total surpassed that by $12,000, raising $37,000!

Rose also volunteers at other events around the St. Louis Metro Area, including the Polar Plunge and Over the Edge. Her son, Jason, has already caught the SOMO bug and has begun fundraising to go Over the Edge in St. Louis this October! Rose – your efforts, passion, and enthusiasm are definitely contagious. We are so impressed and thankful for your support!

Outstanding Family

  • Berryhill Family, Southeast Area
  • Brokamp Family, Central Area
  • Janes Family, Northeast Area
  • Miller Family, Southwest Area
  • Rowell Family, Northwest Area
  • Tarry Family, Kansas City Metro Area

The Central Area staff cannot remember a time when the Brokamp family was not an integral part of the Special Olympics Missouri program.  In fact, we can’t remember a time when the Brokamps have ever said “no” to the Central Area.  Let’s say we needed someone on short notice to speak about what Special Olympics has done for them… the Brokamps always make themselves available.  They’ve been there to set up, tear down, score, escort, register volunteers, recruit volunteers… the list goes on and on.

Over the years, the Brokamps have brought that kind of enthusiasm to the Central Area and to the rest of Missouri, but in 2011 they continued to step up their involvement.  Beth has been asked many times to represent SOMO as a public speaker, especially following her induction into the Special Olympics Missouri Hall of Fame this year.  Linda served on the Columbia Polar Plunge committee as the Post Party Chair, and she has taken on additional duties this year as the Chairman of the State Summer Games and the Family Recruiting Chair of the Capital Campaign.  Ken is no stranger to the SOMO staff either – he’s always there as a volunteer in the souvenir stands, getting Beth to and from events, and working with Linda to accomplish her work.

The energy in this family is like none we’ve ever seen!  We feel honored to have the Brokamps as friends and to present them with this well-deserved award for Outstanding Family in 2011!

Outstanding Coach

  • Kathy Butler, Northeast Area
  • Steve  Farkas, St. Louis Metro Area
  • Kadi Haslag, Central Area
  • Dawn Jones, Kansas City Metro Area
  • Lyle Kirk, Northwest Area
  • Todd Koester, Southeast Area
  • Emma Vasquez, Southwest Area

This year’s Outstanding Coach honors go to Lyle Kirk.  Lyle coached the Grundy County DAWGS for many years and worked with teams in a variety of sports, including basketball, bocce, softball, and bowling.  Lyle had a special way of taking our athletes under his wing, developing trust, and encouraging them to become self-confident.  Lyle passed away on November 21, 2011.

We will always remember Lyle’s great attitude, amazing heart, and infectious smile.  At every Northwest Area Tournament you could count on Lyle coaching his teams to be respectful and to play with honor.  If Lyle happened to be watching another team from Grundy County play, you could always count on him to be the loudest fan, encouraging his athletes to do the “DAWGS” chant on the sidelines!

Lyle also helped to start up the first-ever Young Athletes Program in Trenton, MO which continues to this day.  On Young Athlete Nights, he always made sure every athlete had a buddy, they all understood, and they all could participate.

At Lyle’s funeral, one of his athletes said, “It didn’t matter if we won or lost, Lyle always said all that matters is that we did our best.  We always did our best and it shows because at our last tournament we won the sportsmanship award.  Lyle helped us do that.”

As you can see, Lyle instilled in these athletes what our coaches are meant to instill:  sportsmanship!  His athletes will live on remembering what Lyle taught them. They will continue to play with honor and heart in the name of Lyle Kirk.

Lyle Kirk was a special man and a very special coach for the Northwest Area.  We will miss him greatly.  Another coach from Grundy County, Brenda Thorne, put it quite nicely: “HE IS OUR HERO!”

Outstanding Athlete

  • Justin Bernhardt, St. Louis Metro Area
  • Joey Breeden, Northeast Area
  • Brianne Chavez, Southeast Area
  • Jenny Dayton, Southwest Area
  • Kizzy Dutton, Northwest Area
  • Leanna Krogmann, Central Area
  • Brittany Selken, Kansas City Metro Area

We are proud to honor Leanna Krogmann as our Outstanding Athlete in 2012.  In 2011, Leanna reached a major milestone in the career of any Special Olympics athlete: attending the World Games in Athens, Greece.  Better still, she competed in her favorite sport, swimming.  Leanna moved from Hannibal to Columbia and immediately began her training as a swimmer.  Every parent, coach, and athlete she comes into contact with takes notice of her infectious “never give up” attitude.  Always looking for a new challenge, she joined a new team to work with a college-level swim coach and continued to flourish as an athlete.

She’s more than an athlete though.  Leanna worked with her parents to raise over $5,000 to pay for her trip to the World Games.  Always an ambassador for Special Olympics, she embodies the spirit of competition, learning, determination, and teamwork.  Her coaches recall that after she won a gold medal at Athens, she returned home to Columbia wearing all four of her medals at once with the gold medal underneath the rest.  She was wearing them in the order that she received them, none more important than the others.  Each of those medals represented a unique achievement and Leanna wore each of them with pride!

Today, Leanna Krogmann trains and competes as hard as ever.  For her, Special Olympics is a way of life, full of opportunities even after competing at the World Games.  Thank you for representing us so well, Leanna!

View photos of all of our nominees on our Facebook page.