St. Louis family realizes potential of son through Young Athletes Program

Raising a child with special needs can be a challenge for any parent.  John and Sarah Bowen of St. Louis were willing to take on the challenge – and the privilege – when they adopted their son, Jonah.

“I can’t say it was easy,” Sarah said.  “The whole adoption process itself can be emotional; and knowing that there’s a possibility that special needs could come up in the future definitely added to that chaos of adoption, but the first year with him was really good.”

Both John and Sarah have worked in the medical field and therefore had a better understanding of early warning signs for intellectual disabilities.

Despite the possibility of raising a child with special needs, John and Sarah wanted to provide the best care possible for their son.

Sarah recalled that he was “just a typical baby and it was pretty much at his first birthday that he crawled and we noticed that certain milestones weren’t being met. That went on from there to different doctors to figure out how we could help.”

One outlet that has helped both Jonah, 4, and his parents has been their involvement in the Young Athletes® Program provided by Special Olympics Missouri. YAP is a sport and play program designed for children ages 3-7. Depending on the location of the program, it’s typically a one-hour session that lasts between four to eight weeks twice a year.

The program is designed get kids active by participating in games that will help build skills toward eventual sports inclusion as they grow up. While the program falls under the Special Olympics umbrella of programs, it’s open to all children, not just those with intellectual disabilities.

John and Sarah have been able to gain a support system through YAP.  They both had positive feedback about the Young Athletes Program and what it means to them: “In a way, I would say it’s hope,” Sarah said.  “It’s invaluable.  We cherish the time we get to spend with other parents because they may just be saying something off the cuff and it sparks an idea it’s like ‘Oh, yeah, maybe we should look into that.’

“The joy for me is seeing Jonah running around participating, smiling and having a good time, but there’s also selfishly the parent side of it that I can take a break for an hour and talk to other adults.”

John agreed, “There are resources and help out there … (shows you) that you’re not alone.  Everybody has a little bit of a different situation, but there are things we can share and learn from each other and I think that’s a good resource in that aspect, too.”

While Jonah’s parents have been able to gain a support system, Jonah has been able to gain confidence both intellectually and athletically.  His growth has not gone unnoticed by his parents.

“He was always just…I wouldn’t say he was afraid, but there was always that barrier that he couldn’t seem to get over, but being in the Young Athletes Program especially has helped him with his confidence in doing activities and different sports and stepping over that barrier and going for it,” Sarah said.

John said Jonah can be himself at YAP functions.

“The program allows him to express himself just because the program is so active and it keeps him going,” John said.

Those who are in charge of running the Young Athletes Program have also observed the ways in which the program has benefited the Bowen family. One of those individuals is the St. Louis Metro Area Program Outreach Manager Aimee Loyet.

“Jonah is one of my most exciting young athletes by far,” Loyet said.  “He does – for being such a little person and a young man – have a huge personality and a knack at commanding an entire room and getting people to feel comfortable and happy.  He’s such a bright young boy and I’ve seen so much growth in him over the last few years.”

Because of Jonah’s continued growth and the support from his parents, they have endless opportunities for their future involvement with Special Olympics Missouri.

“I see not only the family but Jonah being able to lead his peers and be involved with the Athlete Leadership Program and spreading the word of SOMO,” Loyet said. “He would be a great spokesperson to have such longevity with the program as he moves into adulthood.”

Loyet said the Young Athletes Program is more than just training children with intellectual disabilities.  It’s also training families and parents on having a support group, friends and additional resources in a non-judgmental group of parents who are going through those same struggles.

To learn more details about a Young Athletes Program near you, please visit our website at

Young Athletes Program Motivates Young Volunteer

It is hard to imagine how something so small could have such a large impact on my life. When I first started to attend the Monday night Young Athlete Program sessions with Special Olympics Missouri, I did not expect much in return. Once you reach a point in your life, you think that people need to be learning from you. At times, although many of us do not like to admit it, we think that we have life figured out. From these Young Athletes, I have gained new perspectives, I have learned many lessons in life, and I have noticed a shift from within myself.

When I first started volunteering on Monday nights, I labeled it as another activity to fit into my busy schedule and into my hectic life. I am not sure why I took this leap and volunteered, but I am grateful that I did. After a few months passed, I gradually started to see a change in myself. I started to count down the minutes to Young Athletes Program. I started to see the athletes improve, and I started to build relationships with the Young Athletes. Young Athletes Program took on a deeper meaning than the typical thought that “it will look good on a college application”.

It is difficult to describe the change in myself I saw after I started volunteering. As a teenager I have this natural tendency to be focused on myself. I constantly thought about my trials, my victories, and my losses. After I started volunteering, there was a shift. I started to help others when they faced a trial, celebrate when they have won, and empathize when they lost. I started to develop this genuine care for others that at a time was so small.

Once I started looking beyond myself, I started to learn the value of accepting others. In the beginning I was not sure how to interact with these athletes. Early on most of what I saw was their disabilities. After hours of volunteering, I see these athletes in a new light. After spending time with these athletes, I saw them as regular kids. All of us have differences, and some of our differences are more visible than others’ differences. Being involved in Special Olympics Missouri has taught me how to be accepting of others differences because in the end the differences do not matter. We are all human. That is enough to treat each other equally and as you would want to be treated.


Young Athletes and their Whitfield School volunteers at the Young Athletes Program awards ceremony.

The Young Athletes that I have interacted with are truly miracles. With every athlete you can learn something about life or even about yourself if you keep a sensitive, open mind. Every day we are bombarded many different voices telling you how to be happy. These athletes have shown me how to do this. One athlete in particular has pointed me towards happiness. This Young Athlete I worked with this year has really changed my life. This beautiful girl has Down syndrome. Ever since I first met her, I felt drawn to her. I started building a relationship with her. I started noticing her improvements, I had an easier time understanding her, and I noticed how she interacted with the world around her. One of the things that stood out to me is that she is constantly smiling through all of the different ups and downs she is facing internally and externally. Even if she is having a rough day, she is smiling ear to ear. She is laughing, cheering all of her friends on, and giving high fives and hugs. She has given me a new perspective on life.

Spending time with this Young Athlete always gives me energy. Her smiles and giggles are contagious. My mind cannot fully comprehend how she manages to smile even through everything she faces moment to moment. This Young Athlete has given me the courage to overcome my trials. She has shown me the ripple effect of happiness. She helps others smile and laugh, and the people who are smiling and laughing make others smile and laugh. Imagine how different our world would be if we made one other person smile every day. This Young Athlete does not compare herself to others, she does not judge others by external appearance, and she lives a life of simplicity and joy that all of us could learn from.

With the help of Special Olympics Missouri, I have seen a shift within myself. Every day I try to live like this young athlete. Trying to keep a selfless mind has helped me to grow a passion for helping others. The Young Athletes Program has taught me life lessons that even the greatest philosophers could not provide. This program has not only brought me a new passion of working with these young athletes, this program has taught me the importance of serving others, and it has taught me valuable lessons about myself, life, and happiness.

Sydney Smith is a sophomore at Whitfield School in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. Smith volunteers with the Young Athletes Program as an extracurricular activity.

Young Athlete Interview

The following is an interview with Eli Johnson, 5, from Skidmore, and his parents, Roger and Kathy. The Young Athletes Program is designed to reach out to children with intellectual disabilities ages 3 to 7, and to welcome them and their families to the Special Olympics movement.

Interview with Eli

Eli runningWhat do you like most about being in Special Olympics’ Young Athletes Program?
I like track and field day because it is fun running on the track. I can go really fast in my wheelchair

What’s your favorite sport/play activity? Why?
I like t-ball , baseball and basketball because my older brothers play. I like catching the ball and playing with my friends.

Do you have a favorite sports hero? Who?
Yes, I like Billy Butler. He plays for the Kansas City Royals.

Do you have a favorite sports team? Which one?
Yes, I like the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Kansas City Royals.

What’s your favorite toy to play with? Why?
My favorite toys are tractors, animals, bullriding, Playmobil and hot wheels. I just like them because they are fun. I can pretend with them.

Interview with Roger and Kathy

How long has your son been involved in Special Olympics’ Young Athletes program?
3 years

What is your child’s favorite sport/activity? Why?
Eli enjoys t-ball, basketball, track and field Little Feet Meet. He enjoys competing like his older brothers and being part of a team. Eli does not see any limitations when he participates.

Eli special olympics at NWMSUHow did your child / family become involved with Special Olympics?
Three years ago they started a Young Athletes Program in the county where we live. Eli started attending the four week sessions where he plays games and meets other children with disabilities. Then as a young athlete he was invited to the Little Feet Meet track and field day where each young athlete participates in the open ceremonies and three events: running, standing long jump and throwing a tennis ball. Eli loves going and he looks forward to participating again this coming spring.

What has your son gained from his participation in Special Olympics?
Eli is not as shy. He tries different activities. Eli is able to compete like other kids and he feels important because of it. It helps him to not see barriers.

Describe your proudest moment regarding your child’s participation in Special Olympics?
Our proudest moments are seeing how excited Eli is when competing and trying new things. We love Eli’s smile and pure joy as he runs down the track. We are excited to see how proud Eli is when he participates in the track and field Little Feet Meet opening ceremonies while the crowd is cheering. Eli has developed a feeling of self worth by participating in Young Athletes Special Olympics. We have also enjoyed seeing how supportive Eli’s older brothers are when watching him participate. Eli is determined to do everything on this own.

Young Athletes Program


Renee Sherman is a Young Athletes Program parent from the Northwest Area.

I spent 14 years of my life playing T-ball and girls fast pitch softball. Before that, I was a bat girl for the fast pitch teams that my dad used to coach. Every late spring and early summer, my family and I lived and breathed softball. So, as an adult, when I had the opportunity to be assistant coach for girls fast pitch team 12 & under, I jumped at the chance and thought I would love the opportunity to pass on my love of softball to a new generation. The world of competitive sports was very different from an adult’s vantage point. The girls were great, but the ugliness of competitive sports at such a vital young learning age, turned me off of organized sports.

Years later, my son was born. What was supposed to be a wondrous moment, turned into that of fear, confusion, sadness and dread upon learning that he was born with Down syndrome. It took a lot of time to know that our family outlook was a positive one (that however, is another story). This story is realizing that my son could partake in an organization called Special Olympics! What a glorious moment for me to know that he would be able to participate with a group that would support his every accomplishment, attempt and failure. He would be surrounded by individuals who see an opportunity to compete, not to berate the competition, but uplift those whom would challenge themselves. I understood that the parent base (many of whom had a rough bout dealing with diagnosises, hospital stays, the outside world’s perception of their child) would protect my son as a pride of lions protect their own. They would be there to support all individuals involved in the activity, not slinging mud at umpires, coaches, other parents or young competitors. Some parents may see Special Olympics as another reminder of their child’s disability, but after my short time as assistant coach, I relished the thought of being involved with Special Olympics. And then I learned a hard lesson: My son would have to be eight years old in order to compete.

Eight years is a long time for someone who understood the value of organized activities at a young age: strength, coordination, patience, teamwork, self confidence, persistence – all those skills that make us stronger individuals. Boy, was I relieved to learn from our First Step Therapists about a new Special Olympics program called YAP, Young Athletes Program, for children with disabilities age three to eight! Let the games begin!

Liam has been enjoying the Young Athletes Program for almost three years now. He has grown cognitively, physical, and socially. He also participated in the Northwest Area Little Feet Meet last spring, where he earned a certificate of achievement.