There’s No Place Like Home: 20 Years on Staff

By Trish Lutz, Senior Director of Programs

With Richie Wallace

With Richie Wallace

In May 1991, I graduated from Pittsburg State University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication with an emphasis in public relations and a minor in business administration. Like any other college graduate, I hit the pavement to find a job. In August 1991, I was offered the position as the Missouri Special Olympics Area IV (now KC Metro) Administrative Assistant. I had the choice of taking the job with SOMO or being a marketing assistant who helped market modular prisons where I would make more money, but I chose to take the route of a more fulfilling job. Little did I know that it was not only a fulfilling job, but one that seeped deep within my soul to the point that I cannot imagine my life without Special Olympics.

Growing up in the 70s and 80s, the attitude of the abilities of individuals with intellectual disabilities was a lot different than it is now. However, I had the fortunate opportunity to have two best friends growing up that had siblings with intellectual disabilities that I got to spend tons of time with.

Kim Wallace and I first met in 4th grade. She was shy and I was outgoing. She was short, I was tall. She liked to study and read, I liked to talk and socialize. We were complete opposites, but we soon became the best of friends and still are as she was the matron of honor at my wedding 17 years ago. Kim was the second to youngest of 5 kids and her older brother, Richie was born with Down syndrome. I had never been around individuals with Down syndrome and I was little apprehensive at first but when I saw how Kim’s family interacted with Richie and didn’t treat him any differently, I realized that Richie was person just like me.

Mindy Oliver

Mindy Oliver

Soon after, Nikki Oliver and I because good friends through girl scouts and dance. Her mom, Nancy, was my dance teacher. Nikki was the youngest of three girls and her oldest sister, Mindy, had an intellectual disability. I would often go to Nikki’s house after school and Nikki, Mindy and I would hang out. I loved being with Mindy. She was always so happy and smiling all the time. She would get excited when she saw me and ask me a ton of questions (always the same questions, but I never got tired of answering them). She would watch us practice dance and tell me I did a good job. She would cheer for us at our volleyball and basketball games. Mindy was always that lift I needed.

As my career with SOMO began to evolve, I became the first Missouri KC Metro Area Director. Special Olympics Kansas and Special Olympics Missouri decided to embark on a new adventure and join the two area programs since the only thing that divided us was State Line Road. The Kansas KC Metro Area Director and I combined our largest event, our Area Spring Games (track and field). It was at this event that everything came full circle for me. Both Mindy and Richie participated with Special Olympics Kansas and they competed at this event! I was honored to get to present Richie one of his medals and be there when Mindy received one of her medals. I had grown up with these two individuals and now I had planned a competition for them to be able to showcase their abilities. Looking back, this was at the top of the list of one of the highlights of my career.

Fast forward to 1996 and there is an opening at the then “State Office” (now Headquarters) as the Special Events Coordinator. I had spent 5 years in Kansas City and decided it was time to try my hand at something new. I got the position and transferred to Jefferson City. I was trying to find my way, was missing my friends and family and had become good friends with the Brimer Family at the 1995 World Games. Gary Brimer was the Director of Sports and Training at that time. Gary would invite me to spend the weekends with his family and asked me if I wanted to coach the Unified® Basketball team that he had coached at the World Games because he couldn’t anymore due to his position with SOMO. I said sure, and that’s when my life took another turn.

With Brian, my husband

With Brian, my husband

There was this guy who started coming to basketball practice on Sunday evenings just to work out with the team. He had red hair, blue eyes, a great smile and nice legs. One thing led to another and we started dating. I wasn’t as happy in my new position because I really missed planning the sporting events for the athletes. Next thing I know I was engaged, and that’s when I decided maybe I wanted a job that was 8 to 5, Monday through Friday, so I decided to move on from SOMO. I got a job with the Missouri School Boards Association (MSBA), married that red-haired, blue-eyed hunk, Brian Lutz, but still remained very involved as a volunteer with Special Olympics Missouri.
During what I like to call my three-year sabbatical, I was able to realize just how good I had it with SOMO. I gained new skills and really grew up at MSBA, but there was always something missing and that was the mission, the athletes and the people.

In 1999, the Northeast Area Director position opened up and my life took yet another turn when I had the tremendous opportunity to come back “home!” I started back with SOMO on August 16, 1999 and that very same day Brian and I found out we were expecting a baby!

Rachel and her SOMO basketball team

Rachel and her SOMO basketball team

Now 15 years later, I am the Sr. Director of Programs, still married to that hunk who has the same passion for SOMO, and we have a beautiful 14-year-old daughter, Rachel, who also shares the same passion and not because she has been going to events since she was in the womb! She truly loves working with the athletes and actually plans to become an early childhood special education teacher and maybe someday she will run the Young Athlete Program in Missouri!

Working for SOMO isn’t just a job, it’s a passion. I often tell people how fortunate I am to wake up every morning and say “Yes, I get to go to work!” I have met so many wonderful people and made so many lifelong friends.

With Danny Duvall

With Danny Duvall

Many athletes have touched my life beyond measure, like Richie Wallace, Mindy Oliver, Danny Duvall, Jared Niemeyer, Robb Eichelberger, Garrett Lawrence, Jamie Graham, Sarah Byland, Tina Jones, Shirlene Treadwell, Max Homer, Steve McKinney, Donzell Williams, Emily Carroll, Matt Cepeda, Arthur Murphy, Rodney Shoaf and Kristina Rhodes.

I have planned and organized events for the athletes to compete, trained athletes to do public speaking and had the pleasure of seeing them succeed in sports and in life.
I watched Jared Niemeyer run his first race and most recently beamed with pride as he was invited to the White House to celebrate what he has done to promote a world of inclusion, acceptance and respect. I own the very first children’s book that Jamie Graham wrote and illustrated. I cheered Robb Eichelberger onto a gold medal finish in tennis at the 2006 National Games, and now he serves on the SOMO Board of Directors. My one and only experience as a Unified partner in bowling was with my friend Shirlene Treadwell and when I couldn’t knock a single pin down, she was there to encourage me all the way. I remember how Danny Duvall would always give me a hug every time he saw me and the day he was inducted into the SOMO Hall of Fame, just weeks before he passed away after his battle with cancer.

With Jared Niemeyer

With Jared Niemeyer

I am one Kansas girl who is glad I followed the yellow brick road to Missouri 23 years ago. I found my “Emerald City” in SOMO and the great Wizard of SOMO, Mark Musso, who gave me a home in SOMO, not once, but twice and I am very fortunate to call my boss!

Along the way I met the good witch, Diannah White, who was my supervisor and mentor for many years. She is now the Executive Director of her church and is one of my dearest friends and role models.

Susan Stegeman is the not-so-cowardly lion who has the courage to lead the development team to raise the funds to support the more than 17,000 athletes in Missouri.

Mary Lou Hammann, is the brainy scarecrow who leads the operations team and is the brains behind our organization and making sure that we operate efficiently and with integrity.

Then there is the tinman, Gary Brimer, he is the heart of SOMO who has built the sports program to what it is today and has taught others to do the same.

While I may not own a pair of ruby red slippers like Dorothy, I can honestly say “THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME!” Thank you for the past 20 years and I certainly look for forward to the years to come!

Do what you love, love what you do

Ashley Dawson is the Project UNIFY Manager for SOMO. You can reach her at dawson@somo.org. 

I’m one of those truly lucky people who get to wake up in the morning and love what they do. Of course there are frustrations, because what fun would life be if everything went smoothly and you never encountered an obstacle. But I get to wake up and go to one of two jobs – mom to my almost 3-year-old, or Project UNIFY Manager for Special Olympics Missouri. When I first decided to stay home with my daughter almost 2 years ago, I never imagined there would also still be a place at SOMO that fit me so well. Working with my boss to make a plan for how I could still make an impact at SOMO and help support my family and be home with my daughter more, we created a position to manage the very large job of overseeing youth initiatives and reporting data in accordance with our substantial grant.

My expectations were pretty low (don’t tell my boss!), knowing that I was leaving a position I loved, that suited my strengths very well, and taking a position that had seemingly less to challenge me professionally. After a year of getting my feet under me, I feel like I’ve only grown more and more to see the potential of youth in Missouri and am daily inspired by what schools and teens are doing in their local community. I’ve watched high schoolers step up and lead a school-wide Respect Rally. I’ve heard teachers sit down side-by-side and discuss roadblocks – not to complain, but to find a SOLUTION. I’m fortunate to get to peek inside the challenges teachers face, and lucky to be able to sit and think about how I can work with them to overcome obstacles that stand in the way (often inadvertently) of creating a welcome, inclusive, positive environment in schools across the state.

At our last YAC meeting, a room full of students was led by a freshly elected president (a freshman in college). They hammered out sub-committees, and identified adult advisors (teachers and staff). They worked independently to accomplish goals they set for themselves. At the same time, our ELN sat in a room and heard from several people about presentations and conferences they had attended and were inspired by. They brought back tons of information to share with other teachers in our group.

For a girl who always dreamed of being a teacher, being surrounded by so many inspiring teachers and students each time I set foot in my office or attend a meeting, is a real blessing. Not only do I get to see young students well exceeding people’s expectations (mine included!), but I get to work with them and challenge myself and them to dream even bigger.

Capitol Hill Day 2013: A Day We Will Never Forget

On March 6, Special Olympics and Best Buddies representatives from all over the nation stormed Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., to spread the good news of their life-changing programs for those with intellectual disabilities. Working for SOMO, this of course means so much to me. Getting a chance to speak to congress about the needs of our athletes is a huge honor! However, it means much more to me than that, and here is why.

31 years ago, my parents had a baby boy with Down syndrome and they named him Tanner Lee Hrenchir. That long ago, Down syndrome was still very foreign to most. They were told everything he wouldn’t do by the doctors. They spoke of institutionalizing him and were even told to have no more children because they too would be (pardon my language) retarded. Their dreams were crushed. However, they did not give up and decided even if every day would be a fight or a struggle, they would survive because they loved their son.

They found therapy and speech classes at a young age for Tanner. Tanner started growing and exceeding all their expectations. Then at age 10, they entered him into the great world of Special Olympics! After this simple enrollment into a program that seemed to be something he might like, our lives have NEVER BEEN THE SAME!

We have had so many special opportunities through Special Olympics. Most importantly though, Tanner and my family have found a place to call home. We have found a place where Tanner and grow and succeed on “his level.” We found a place where Tanner can be Tanner! Through this program, we have gained lifelong friends who have experienced the same struggles, battles, joys, and life situations that we have. As a sister, this is more than I ever dreamed of when we entered Tanner into this program.

Speaking of opportunities, Tanner has had the opportunity to travel to places near and far to compete. Tanner has had the great honor of sharing his courageous story about his life and Special Olympics to thousands of people over the past few years. Tanner also experienced what it felt like to be a National Games athlete in 2010 as a member of Team Missouri’s Track and Field team. Again, opportunities we never thought existed 22 years ago when he participated in his first bowling practice.

Tim Shriver, Tanner Hrenchir, Roy Blunt and Katie, Wanda and Jerry Hrenchir

Special Olympics CEO Tim Shriver, Tanner Hrenchir, Senator Roy Blunt and Katie, Wanda and Jerry Hrenchir

Perhaps the most honorable and humbling opportunity to date was our Capitol Hill Day experience last week. Tanner, myself, and our parents, Jerry and Wanda, were all able to represent Special Olympics Missouri for this special day. The entire experience was filled with joy, nerves, shock, happiness, and most of all excitement. You could just feel the excitement in the air and buzz around town that we were there to make a statement!

Our main goal was to meet with representatives, senators, and other dignitaries to explain the benefits of our programs to people like Tanner with intellectual disabilities, to share our story, and to hopefully bring them on board to be co-sponsors of the EKS Act. The Eunice Kennedy Shriver Act has one main goal: to meet the persistent and critical needs of those with intellectual disabilities by providing funding for health, employment, and education.

Tanner Hrenchir, center, shares photos of his Special Olympics experiences with Senator Blunt and Tim Shriver

Tanner Hrenchir, center, shares photos of his Special Olympics experiences with Senator Blunt and Tim Shriver

We were able to share our story to the offices of Representative Blaine Luetkemeyer, Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler, Representative Bill Long, and Senator Roy Blunt. Tanner was able to give his speech in each office – which was a huge success –  and share pictures of him competing in sports through Special Olympics. Again, watching my brother share his life story with these individuals will be a memory I will never forget. To know he got to share his story at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., really can’t be beat! We were also fortunate enough to meet Timothy Shriver during our meeting with Roy Blunt. That put the icing on the cake for the Hrenchir family! To meet the son of our greatest hero, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and to be able to sit across the table and just have simple conversation with him was a complete joy. To meet the CEO of a program that will forever be home to our family was the greatest honor of all. Again, another experience we never expected!

We can only hope our stories touched the lives of those we got to speak to. We know that our lives have been changed by this amazing experience and we can never thank SOMO enough for asking us to represent them on this huge day. Another story for the books of Tanner Hrenchir … we hope for many more to come!

Katie Hrenchir is the Northwest Area Associate Director. She has worked for SOMO for five years. Reach her at hrenchir@somo.org. 

2012 International Law Enforcement Torch Run Conference

As I walked into the Missouri meeting on the first night of the 2012 International LETR Conference, I saw several familiar faces, but mostly new faces filled the room. I started working for Special Olympics Missouri in June, so this was my first LETR Conference. Little did I know, the faces surrounding me played such an important role in making Special Olympics Missouri what it is today and what it will be in the future.

The first person I heard speak was Kurt Kendro at the Newcomer Orientation. He shared some fundraising ideas that are successful in his state, Hawaii, but he mostly spoke about LETR as a whole. He shared the “real” story of how LETR got started. In 1979, Richard LaMunyon had the idea for six law enforcement officers to run five miles in Kansas. Then in 1981, the Law Enforcement Torch Run® officially began.

During my first concurrent session, I learned about the history of the Torch Run. Did you know that in 2011, law enforcement around the world raised $42 million for Special Olympics? In my other concurrent sessions, I was able to hear about a variety of fundraisers including Unified Triathlons, Showdown of the Shields, Skeet Shooting and Free the Fuzz. All of these events wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for our dedicated law enforcement. They spend countless hours planning, preparing, and hosting those events that benefit Special Olympics athletes.

Since 1981, law enforcement has raised $414,000,000! To be honest, I had no idea just how much the Law Enforcement Torch Run® financially supported Special Olympics. However, I did know that law enforcement loves Special Olympics athletes, and Special Olympics athletes love law enforcement. The athletes enjoy competing in various sports, making new friends, improving their athletic skills, and most importantly receiving medals from the highly respected law enforcement officers of their area. This was displayed throughout all of the pictures during the conference. During the slideshows, it was simple to see that law enforcement impacts our athletes every day. One of my favorite pictures was of an athlete and law enforcement officer holding the torch high in the air together; they both had smiles a mile wide.

Law enforcement is the top fundraiser for Special Olympics worldwide. Even though they are great financial supporters, law enforcement does so much more than just fundraising. Special Olympics and LETR are working together to increase awareness through the Military Initiative Worldwide. They are becoming Unified Partners. Law enforcement officers are making a difference in the lives of athletes and leading by great example in the community.

I enjoyed listening to many exceptional speakers at the conference. Jason Plante, a Special Olympics Indiana athlete who attends Purdue University was one of my favorites. His pursuit for knowledge is remarkable. Hearing Carl Erskine’s story gave me chills up my back. For those of you who aren’t big baseball fans, he pitched in five World Series during his career. He also has a child who is an athlete for Special Olympics Indiana. Every single person who took the stage had a fascinating story to tell that brought joy to my heart.

Sunday morning came too soon. It was time for me to make the drive back to good ‘ol St. Louis. Even though everyone was parting ways and heading back to their hometowns, I am confident a spark was planted in each individual. That spark will create a flame and that flame will be what makes the torch shine brightly in every law enforcement officer for all to see.

As I was sitting in the car, I couldn’t help but think about how lucky Special Olympics is to have such an inspiring partnership with law enforcement. The people I met during my time in Indianapolis are extraordinary individuals who believe in Special Olympics and want to make a difference in our movement. A quote I heard on Friday morning was running through my head, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Law enforcement and Special Olympics are going far together.

Thank you law enforcement for all you do and growing Special Olympics worldwide.

Ellen Coots, Mandi Steward and Kami Delameter before the Hall of Fame Banquet on the last night of the conference

Ellen Coots, Mandi Steward and Kami Delameter before the Hall of Fame Banquet on the last night of the conference

Ellen Coots is the Development Assistant for St. Louis Metro Area. You can reach her at coots@somo.org.

Welcome to the Team: Brandon Schatsiek

When it was all said and done, my face hurt from all of the smiling.

I hadn’t smiled that much since my wedding; the only difference this time was I actually enjoyed myself.

Yes, the whole marrying my best friend thing was fine and dandy — I guess — but the facial pain was in reference to posing for photographs from sun up ‘til sun down that left my face numb.

I’m the kind of person who would much rather be behind the camera than in front of it for reasons explained above, but after taking pictures and video (as I begin my new position as Public Relations Coordinator for SOMO) at the Fall Games that all too familiar facial numbness was back. This time, however, I was smiling for all of the right reasons.

Technically I don’t start until December 3, but I wanted to help out and get my first Special Olympics experience.

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Most of the time it was difficult to tell who was winning and who was losing because both sides were living in the ecstasy of competition, while exuding great sportsmanship.

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Let me quickly introduce myself: I am from Washington, Ill., a small city just outside of Peoria. I graduated from University of Missouri with a degree in convergence journalism in 2010.

I was always actively involved with different charitable organizations and youth groups, but it wasn’t until the week of Mizzou’s graduation that I realized I wanted to dedicate my life to making the world a better place without totally wasting all of the money I just spent my journalism degree.

After spending the weekend in Cape Girardeau with the all of the SOMO employees, volunteers and especially the athletes, I knew that I found that perfect job.

I’ve always known about the great things Special Olympics does because my wife’s cousin has Fragile X and has participated in Special Olympics events for years, but my first Special Olympics experience was a baptism by fire so to speak.

We made the 5-hour jaunt to Cape Girardeau from Peoria, Ill., Thursday night (we are re-locating to Missouri in a few weeks) not really sure what the weekend was going to hold.

Sarah was on awards duty at the golf competition while I made the rounds to all of the competitions with Marketing Manager Mandi Steward.

While driving around the foggy and soggy golf course taking photos and video with Mandi, I tried to ask as many questions about Special Olympics as possible without driving her crazy and re-thinking the decision to hire me.

One aspect of Special Olympics that I wasn’t aware of was the division of Unified Sports® competitions. I love the idea that in certain sports athletes can be paired with friends, family members or coaches to compete against other teams.

It allows the athletes to still compete against one another, but gives them a teammate for support both physically and mentally.

Having servicemen and women helping out at the bocce ball competition was great to see from a volunteer perspective, but from what I could tell, the athletes really enjoyed interacting with them as well. It was a very nice touch and something for which they should be commended.

The Opening Ceremony Friday night was kind of nerve-wracking because things didn’t go the way they were supposed to in a couple of areas, but several SOMO workers said they usually don’t go as planned and still turn out okay most of the time. That was a huge relief.

I was on my own for flag football and softball on Saturday, but it was nice that everything was in one location. It allowed my wife and me to walk around and really just soak in the atmosphere at a Special Olympics event.

Everywhere we went athletes and coaches donned smiles from ear to ear. Most of the time it was difficult to tell who was winning and who was losing because both sides were living in the ecstasy of competition, while exuding great sportsmanship.

That’s what I took away from my first Special Olympics experience: at the end of the day it’s about the athletes having fun playing sports and building healthy, happy relationships with everyone involved.

If covering the sporting events was the cake then the dance Saturday night was definitely the icing. I never really cared for dances when I was in school because, well, I couldn’t dance (and still can’t) and girls were — and for the most part still are — gross.

As fantastic as the athletes were on the field of play, they were even better on the dance floor. I couldn’t stop laughing watching how much fun they were having as I walked around the dance floor taking photos and video.

When the weekend was all said and done, I realized that I couldn’t have ended up with a better organization. I just want to thank all of the volunteers for their hard work in making the event a success; and above all else I want to congratulate all of the athletes for their dedication to their sports.

The weekend truly was a memorable one for Sarah and me as we begin a new chapter in our lives.

Sarah and Brandon Schatsiek

Here’s to hoping there are many more events where my face hurts from smiling and laughing so much.

Brandon Schatsiek will begin his job at SOMO Dec. 3. You can reach him at schatsiek@somo.org.

My SOMO Story: Tim Schuster

My SOMO story begins in 1997 in Atchison, Kansas.  I was an uninspired fifth year senior with an extra semester still to go.  In search of a way to finish my college career sometime  before I hit my thirties, I began to hit the trail in search of some type of internship.  Now, if there is one sport that I love, it is the game of baseball.  I could sit and talk for hours about baseball stats, players, managers, strategies and so on.  I had basically spent the entire year trying to get hired for an internship with a minor league baseball team.  Unfortunately, due to finals week, I was unable to attend the large job fair minor league teams use to hire most of their interns.

Then one day I got a call from my mother, and she had been doing some looking on her own, presumably since she was tired of paying for all these years at a private college. Gary Brimer (SOMO’s Chief Sports Officer) had an opening in Jefferson City at the headquarters office. The pay wasn’t much but it would count for credit, I could live at home and we could carpool together since Gary & I lived in the same town.  I had known Gary pretty much my whole life, and since the baseball thing didn’t appear to be panning out, I decided to take him up on his offer.  My experience with Special Olympics was next to nothing.  I had helped Gary out at a local basketball tournament a couple of times in Boonville (my hometown), but nothing more than that.  I had the typical “too cool for school” attitude initially, and took more than my fair share of ribbing from my roommates about spending my summer working with a bunch “special” people.  That’s about the attitude I took with me to begin.

On my first day on the job, Gary told me to pack up my stuff as we would be leaving for the Missouri State Summer Games at Ft. Leonard Wood the following day.  Let me tell you, there’s nothing like being thrown to the wolves on your first week beginning with the biggest event in the state.  So as the Games began, and I got more acclimated with Special Olympics, I began to see what it was all about.  I saw all of the passion, determination, and hard work that was put into the games by the athletes, coaches, staff and volunteers.  I saw that these athletes were not really any different than me or my roommates.  And I remember leaving the Fort with a whole new respect for the athletes and thinking, “Heck, if I had half as much drive as they did, I wouldn’t be facing my sixth year of college dead in the face.”

The summer continued pretty much uneventful just doing the basic intern stuff like filing and what not.  Then one day Gary proposed to me that Missouri was going to put on an athlete camp as a pre-cursor to a Special Olympics World Games the following year.  Missouri had never put on a camp, but other states were trying it and he wanted to see how it went with athletes spending a week away participating in various different sports. I would be the director.  Well, all I can say is, what an experience it was.  We trained in different sports such as basketball, aquatics, and tennis.  We had nightly activities. It was really a good insight once again that these athletes are just like you and I.  I can’t tell you how much fun I had with them. From playing sports with them, showing of my limited dance skills at the dance, and even doing a camp activity known as hiney writing (basically writing your name with your posterior) it truly was one of the best weeks I have ever had.  On the last day of camp, we said our goodbyes and as we were leaving I was presented with an official camp shirt with the autographs of about a hundred of my new friends. To this day, that shirt is framed and hanging up in my house for all to see.

Sadly, the internship came to an end after camp and it was back to school, but I always took with me all of the life lessons the athletes had taught me through their actions.  Life went on, and eventually I did get that baseball job.  I spent ten years traveling the southeast working in baseball.  But I never forgot about Special Olympics, it might have been volunteering at the softball tourney in Tennessee, or helping coordinate  the Jello Jump at my stadium in Virginia. Special Olympics was no longer something I joked about or avoided it was something I sought out and wanted to be a part of.

Now life has brought me full circle, and low and behold I am back working with Special Olympics Missouri full time. I even make it back to camp each year. It’s just like the old adage says: “You can take yourself out of Special Olympics, but you will never take Special Olympics out of you.”

Tim Schuster, left, is the Northeast Area Director for SOMO. You can reach him at schuster@somo.org.

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.

MASC Leadership Workshop: Go for the Gold!

Trish Lutz is the Area Services Director and leads our Youth Activation Council. She can be reached at lutz@somo.org. Through our partnership with the Missouri Association of Student Councils, SOMO leaders attend their Leadership Workshop each summer. Below, Trish blogs about the experience.

Sunday

The theme for Camp this year is “Leadership: Go for the Gold!” It is an Olympic theme in honor of our great country and the Summer Olympics coming up. Obviously, we are loving the theme!

Today’s theme was: “Play A Part of History.” I’d say that SOMO and MASC are playing a strong part in history. The MASC Leadership Camp has been around for many, many years and has been held here at William Woods for 60 years! It has only been in the past three years that individuals with intellectual disabilities have been invited to be a part of this opportunity. It is because of MASC and their focus of building inclusive school environments where ALL individuals are accepted and respected for their abilities and differences.

This is our 4th year coming to camp. With any new opportunity, you have to ease into it so that you can ensure a positive experience for all involved. After three years of coming for half the week, this year, these 7 athletes are making history as we are staying for the ENTIRE WEEK!

Today’s activities were pretty routine. Getting acquainted with their councils, eating dinner (which by the way is yummy and there is always blue bunny ice cream treats for dessert!), playing games, listening to a great motivational speaker and then time for tranquility. Each evening there is “tranquility” time where we all come together and reflect on the days happenings and sing a few songs. It is quiet time before we head off to bed.

Rest assured, everyone is having a GREAT time. Our partners are “bored” because the athletes have already made tons of friends and don’t “need” them anymore! However, they will be there for them all week if they do! Matt Cepeda, Justin Bernhardt and Sierra Simmons are return campers, so they are showing the rest of the gang the ropes!

Monday

After wishing Sierra a Happy Birthday, we were off to the opening session to learn about setting goals. Other activities included doing some public speaking activities and getting to know other council members during “one on one” time. They pair up and spend time getting to know each other. I understand Matt Ziesel got paired up with two young ladies and did his best to impress them!

They also discussed acceptance and inclusion, lead by our very own SOMO YAC Co-Advisor, Jacob Conklin (Jacob also wears a couple of other hats as a STUCO advisor at Pleasant Hope High School and SPED teacher and as an Adult Counselor here at Camp).

The theme for today was “In the True Spirit of the Games,” and they participated in the traditional MASC Olympics. This is a time for fun and games and do a lot of team building with their respective councils. You will have to ask them about some of the wild and crazy activities they had to do (like passing an orange down the line with their chin or holding a tennis ball between their knees and hopping to put it in a bucket!).

The evening ended, as usual with tranquility. Again, a time to reflect and relax before heading off to bed.

Needless to say, everyone had a GREAT day, but they are exhausted.

P.S. You should know that we have some of the BEST Partners here this week with our athletes. Thank you Alan, Renzi, Rachel, Brandon, Brittany and Andrea – I love you guys!

Tuesday

After a very busy day of project planning, project presenting, creating a unique song as a council and singing the song in front of over 500 delegates……it is time to go to bed!

A shout out to Rachel Antal and Justin Bernhardt, SOMO YAC Co-Presidents who presented today the Top 10 Reasons Why MASC and SOMO Share the Spirit!

I am so proud of everyone!

Wednesday

WOW! What a day! Our theme was “Let’s Celebrate Together.”

We started our morning with GUSTO with a presentation by Marty Powers. Marty has been coming to this camp for 30+ years and is a former football coach and STUCO advisor. He is great speaker and really knows how to connect with kids. He also plays the guitar each night during tranquility and leads us in songs.

Then, they headed to round table discussions where they learned about different projects/ideas to take back to their schools and Student Councils.

After round tables, we headed to the park up the street where they did a variety of teambuilding activities, that included being lifted up by their councils into the air! I was SO proud of each and every one of our athletes for what they accomplished today.  They were true leaders today who had the courage to try new things and step out of their comfort zones!

We celebrated our day with DANCE! I got pictures of most everyone at the dance except Morgan — she was such a dancing machine I couldn’t keep up with her!

Finally, at tranquility, one of our SOMO YAC partners, Rachel Pearson, who is a junior counselor (JC) here this week, shared her “gift.” Each JC does a video and presents it to the group to “gift” everyone with something. Rachel’s was about recognizing and celebrating the “little things in life.” She used what she has learned through her involvement with SOMO how it is the little things that matter the most . . . smiles, friendships, happiness and making memories that last a lifetime. It was a beautiful video and we were all crying!

There was one other VERY important activity from today. They held a Duck Race for SOMO and raised over $1,600.

Thursday

As I sit here this evening and reflect on this past week, I have so many thoughts and feelings spinning around in my head and heart. The best way I can describe my thoughts is with a quote by John Wayne. John Wayne once said, “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” This is so true for EVERY person who has experienced this week from the athletes, to the chaperones and to the families!

We had several athletes here who have NEVER been away from home for more than a night or weekend until now! Many came here on Sunday apprehensive and nervous, yet they had the COURAGE to stay and try something brand new. Our motto this week has been “never give up” even if you are faced with something that is outside your comfort zone. Brooke, Matt, Matt, Justin, Morgan, Marcy and Sierra, each showed their COURAGE at some point this week.

Brooke:

Brooke was very shy and quiet the first day. She barely said two words in her council, BUT tonight during the evening session, each council got on stage and had to “sum up” their week and what they learned as a council. Only a few got to speak from each council.  BROOKE stood in front of everyone (about 600 people) with a microphone and spoke from her heart about what she learned this week with her council. THAT IS COURAGE!

Matt Z:

This was a whole new experience for Matt Z as well, but Matt had no problem being himself and showing others how to be themselves as well. Matt, too, got on stage tonight and shared why he liked coming to camp. That is COURAGE!

Matt C:

Matt C has been here before, so this might have seemed like it was going to be easy for him, HOWEVER, this was his first year to stay all week. He had to try some new things, like trusting people he just met to lead him around a park, blindfolded. But what was even more important about that opportunity was that it not only taught trust, but communication. Each person had to communicate with each other so that they would feel comfortable and be able to get where they were going together as a team. That is COURAGE!

Morgan:

This was Morgan’s first real time being away from home as well. I watched Morgan on Wednesday at the park during one certain exercise. What you had to do was spin in a circle with your eyes closed and make yourself dizzy. Then you had to TRUST and listen to others try and LEAD you to the top of the hill, WITH YOUR EYES closed to the finish line. Now, those of you who do not know Morgan, you are probably thinking – okay – what’s the big deal. Most other people would not have a challenge with this because they would use their sense of hearing to get them to the top of the hill. However, Morgan has a hearing impairment so she recognized the challenge. She spoke up for herself and said, “I need help with this activity,” and her friend from her council helped guide her to the top. That not only was COURAGEOUS, but showed her skills as a leader because she was willing to ask for help!

Justin:

Justin is a returning camper as well. This is actually his 3rd time coming to camp. His first year, I could barely get him to smile, let alone talk! This year, he walked in with his head held high, high fiving people he had met the year before and stepped up as a leader in his council. Let’s just say, this year, I NEVER saw him without a smile and, well, he certainly wasn’t quiet! That’s called taking your COURAGE and putting into action!

Marcy:

I have to say, from the beginning, I could sense Marcy was pretty excited about being here! Marcy’s true COURAGE showed at the park during the trust activities. I watched as she really struggled with the activity where you had to trust your council to lift you up. She expressed her fears with everyone and they encouraged her and told her that they would never drop her and that they were there for her. She took a deep breath and then the next thing you know she is in the air! She completely stepped out of her comfort zone. I’ve got to tell you, I don’t know that I could have done what she did (or the other athletes for that matter ). That’s Courage!

Sierra:

Sierra had been here two other times, so she kinda knew what to expect, but not for the whole week. I was VERY proud of Sierra because she, too, spoke this evening in front of everyone on stage! Sierra was about like Justin her first year at camp, very shy, very apprehensive. I truly have seen Sierra grow through this experience and she has become more confident and COURAGEOUS!

Brittany, Brandon, Andrea, Renzi, Alan and Rachel (aka – the chaperones): THANK YOU! You have been an instrumental part of making this week such a success. You each are amazing individuals and I am so proud to have you as part of SOMO YAC!

So, in closing – moms, dads, coaches, teachers and friends – you should be very proud. I look forward to seeing each of the athletes put what they learned this week into action at home, in their schools and at their jobs.

We went for the Gold and we SUCCESSFULLY achieved it! Way to go!

Joplin: One Year Later

What was left of our Joplin office after the tornado

On the evening of May 22, 2011, a devastating F5 tornado ripped through the community of Joplin. In its path were thousands of homes and businesses including our Special Olympics Missouri Southwest Area office. Fortunately, no one was working on that tragic Sunday night. All that was left of what once housed our office was broken beams and debris spread for miles. We lost all of our office supplies and sports equipment. Those were replaceable.

We heard the next morning that two very dear SOMO athletes had perished in their home. The third, their roommate, was fighting for his life and not expected to make it. Ultimately, Tripp Miller, Rick Fox and Mark Farmer all lost their lives at the hand of the tornado. In fitting style of a Special Olympics athlete, Tripp’s last words to his rescuer were, “thank you.”

Our hearts were broken for these families, for the loss of our athletes and for those in the Joplin community whom we had grown to love over the years while they hosted our State Indoor Championships.

And then they came. Our friends from Special Olympics programs around the nation began calling to offer their assistance and check on the well-being of our SOMO family. Our State Summer Games were a mere three days away (just 45 minutes from Joplin). Our hearts were heavy. These friends lifted our spirits; they sent donations, equipment, gift cards and they showed up to volunteer at our State Summer Games. Special Olympics Louisiana held our hands through the entire process teaching us what they had learned during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Other Special Olympics programs, namely New Jersey, Maryland, Colorado, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Oregon, Maryland and Delaware sent food, financial support, supplies, kind thoughts and their prayers.

Today, exactly one year later, two staff members reflect on the tragedy, and how hope eventually shone through the clouds.

From Mark C. Musso, President & CEO:

In the hours that followed the Joplin tornado, we started receiving calls from Special Olympics programs all over the world. The callers wanted to express their sorrow regarding the loss of our three athletes and their desire to help in any fashion. Within 48 hours, the programs in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and Illinois had organized staff and volunteers to come to Missouri to help run our State Summer Games, which started three days after the tornado. Watching these people help during our games was one of the moments we will always treasure as it reaffirmed the family spirit of the Special Olympics movement. During the months to follow, some 20+ programs sent financial support including several local programs from other states.

Soon after the funerals and memorial services, the task of reopening a Southwest Area office was imminent. We made the decision to bring in a headquarters staff member to serve as the project coordinator so our Area Director could focus on providing programs for our athletes. Thanks to the incredible work of Laurie Shadoan and many other staff and volunteers, our new office was open in less than 90 days after the tornado. During this time, Robin Anderson was able to continue to serve as our Area Director, and under her leadership not one single event was canceled.

As we mark the one year anniversary of that terrible day in May 2011, we focus on all the great things our fellow programs did to support us and the amazing accomplishments our own team of volunteers and staff have been able to achieve.  Lastly, we rededicate our efforts to provide services to our athletes statewide in honor of those three men we lost – Tripp, Mark and Rick.  We will never ever forget them and how they made our lives so much better.

From Robin Anderson, Southwest Area Director. You can reach her at anderson@somo.org.

On May 22, 2011, the lives of everyone in Joplin and the surrounding area were forever changed. It was a level of mass destruction that you cannot put into words to describe to anyone. It was a war zone and horror story. The footage that you would see in the papers and on TV did not do it justice.

As you may know, the Southwest Area Office was destroyed in the tornado. Standing in the parking lot, you could do a 180 and see nothing but devastation for miles. The sights, the sounds and the smells are something that I probably will never forget.  It was the most awful, horrendous thing that I could ever imagine seeing, and there I was in the middle of it. The sirens, the helicopters, the chain saws and the generators were so loud, but yet there was silence. So many people out helping others and looking for loved ones, but no one made eye contact. It was like if you looked at someone in the eye it would become real. And no one wanted this to be real.

I saw so much devastation, but at the same time I saw the most amazing things. No one was letting this take control of them. Within minutes of the tornado, the most amazing things happened. People got out with chain saws and their vehicles to help in any way that they could. The radio stations immediately started announcing who needed help and who was ok.  People from all over the country flocked to Joplin, bringing food, water, clothing and workers to clean up the debris.

There is not a person that I know that was not affected in some way. Not only was the middle of Joplin ripped out, but the emotions that went with it were unbelievable and overwhelming. As with any other loss, you don’t get over it, you just learn to live with it.  I learned that it is ok to cry, it is ok to laugh and it is ok to feel guilty and hurt and sad and helpless. You just have to learn what to do with those emotions. Like so many others here, I had to one day say, “This is not going to control the rest of my life.” I think the hardest thing was people not understanding my emotions and thinking that I needed to just shake it off and get over this. This was so much worse than a bad day. It affected so many people, and I couldn’t do a thing about it.

As time has gone by, things are getting comfortable again. I would like to say that they are getting back to normal, but that would be a lie. We will never be back to normal because our normal isn’t there. We are creating our new normal. Homes and businesses are going up, and most of what was destroyed is gone. There is happiness that things are rebuilding, but sadness for what is gone. What is difficult is that some of the personality of Joplin seems to be gone. It is hard not to see that. I still don’t know where I am because the landmarks that I knew are not there. It seems lonely in certain parts of town and that is sad to me.

It took about three months for the Southwest Area office to relocate and open for business. I love our new office. So many great people helped get it to where it is now.   Programs from across the country gave their financial and moral support to the office, to the Joplin athletes and to me. I want to thank them from the bottom of my heart. It is a time like this that we truly see the good in people.

One year later, people are moving on and rebuilding their homes, their businesses and their lives. But at the same time, they will never forget 5:41 on May 22, 2011. So many things have changed, mostly me. I am not the same person I was a year ago. I look at things differently. I see the important things in life and don’t get hung up on the petty things. Life is precious. And not a day goes by that I don’t think about Tripp, Mark and Rick. I close my eyes and see Tripp’s smile and that makes me smile. Because, as he would say, “I do like this place!”

Working with Parks & Recreation

Penny Williams with Patrick, a Southeast Area athlete

My name is Penny Williams with the Southeast Area Special Olympics.  I wanted to share with you a valuable partnership we have developed with our local parks and recreation department (Cape Girardeau Parks and Recreation Dept).

Scott Williams (who is now my husband) and I were both Special Olympics volunteers in college at Southeast Missouri State University.  We were actually on the planning team for the annual Spring Games.  We were both Recreation Majors and loved the mission of Special Olympics and how much it meant to the athletes that participated.  After Scott and I graduated college we went our separate ways.  Scott went to work for the City of Cape Girardeau and I went to work for DNR-State Parks.  Approximately five years later, I come back to Cape Girardeau and Scott was still working for the CGPD and they had a position open.  I applied and got the position.

For years, Scott and I developed and grew many sports leagues in the department.  Having also continued assisting with the local Special Olympics Games, Scott and I worked to develop a plan.  We knew from a Parks and Recreation Department standard that our therapeutic recreation was somewhat limited, so we devised plan – or now we call it a partnership – with an outstanding program that already had a great foundation and a mission statement that complemented ours. We presented our idea to the Executive Director of Special Olympics and to the Director of the Parks and Recreation Dept.  We formed a partnership where for one year they were going to  let us be responsible for the Special Olympics program.  That has been over 15 years ago and the partnership continues to grow.  Well you may ask, “What are the benefits to both organizations?”  I will tell you that they are numerous so for the sake of time I will highlight the main ones.

Scott Williams heads to first base as a member of the Southeast Storm softball team

For Special Olympics, we have provided quality facilities at a relatively low price.  The Parks and Recreation Dept. have access to all types of sports officials and a quality staff that usually are very willing to volunteer for GMTs, etc.  The Parks and Recreation Dept. is also a great resource for Unified Partners that may play in other organized leagues.

Parks and Recreation departments specialize in organizing leagues and tournaments and can make the life of an Area Director much easier.

On the flip side, how has Special Olympics benefitted the Cape Girardeau Parks and Recreation Dept.? We now feel like we truly serve every portion of the population.  We run great events and now EVERYONE can enjoy it.  Special Olympics has greatly improved economic impact in the city especially in the fall, with us hosting State Outdoor Championships (to become State Fall Games this year).   This community really appreciates what Special Olympics is all about!  The City of Cape is proud to host State and Regional competitions from all organizations, but there is not another event that makes this city smile and feel good like Special Olympics does.

We encourage coaches all the time to contact their local parks and recreation department and see if there is some way that they may be willing to help their team or their area with one of the items I mentioned earlier.  We took a chance, and we have touched so many people in the last 15 years.  If it doesn’t work out the first time you ask, don’t give up.   I definitely can attest that our partnership has given us as much as we have received on both ends.

Scott and Penny Williams, left, at the Cape Girardeau Polar Plunge

Penny and Scott Williams are the Area Directors for Southeast Area and also both work for Cape Girardeau Parks & Recreation Department. You can reach them at williams@somo.org.