We have a shelf in my daughters’ bedroom that is filled with treasure. It has knickknacks from our last vacation, the random water globe they begged for at God knows what store, an odd ceramic something or other that was way too expensive (because it was hand painted by my kid at those paint-while-you-wait mall places) plus hair clips and rubber bands galore. But it also has trophies and medals. June is five years old and has three trophies and four medals. Isla is nine years old and has one medal. You see, regardless of how equal and fair we try to treat our children when one has special needs, it won’t ever be equal or fair. Equal and fair opportunities for them don’t always exist. So God bless that one medal. God bless Special Olympics.
When Special Olympics was formed in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver I don’t know if her initial intent was to change the world or at a minimum to change the world of her sister. What I do know is that for about four weeks, twice a week, five to six men have gotten together in a middle school gym with a bag full of basketballs and practiced dribbling, shooting, and passing with about thirty special needs children in our school district. Some of them have jobs in the district related to special needs and some are dads that volunteer but they all spend a couple of hours a week whooping and hollering for every single kiddo that enters that gym. There are high fives, smiles, victory dances, cheering and seriously nonstop clapping and words of encouragement. The kids LOVE this time. No. The kids CRAVE this time. It gives them a rare opportunity to participate in something that all their neurotypical peers can participate in effortlessly. It gives them an opportunity to be on the “other side” with their siblings sitting in the bleachers cheering for THEM this time.
I am going to attempt to describe something to you that really must be seen, heard and felt to understand. Special Olympics Competition Day.
As I poke my head into a very busy gym where the competition is being held, she spots me in an instant. She stands to her feet and waves both arms high in the air and she smiles. But oh how my girl smiles. She has a small cheering section of family that has come with me and my husband and I wave and quickly make a beeline to her. I just saw her thirty minutes ago when I dropped her off with the coaches to ride the bus but we still hug and kiss like it’s been days. Her love for me and her daddy never wavers. It is always strong and always excited and new. As we sit with her team we start to hug and say hello to the other mommies and daddies and discuss our mornings. Some dealt with tantrums. Some dealt with anxiety. Some let their kiddo ride the bus for the first time and others had to drive at the last second because their kiddo was just not feeling it that day. But it’s all good. For us these unpredictable mornings are ... predicted. The gym starts to fill up with athletes from age eight to over thirty and for some their diagnosis is apparent but for others it’s not so clear. Today it really doesn’t matter. They are all unique and all equally important. As a spectator you aren’t feeling too emotional until you start to see all of the participants line up with their schools or teams and proudly hold up their banner. There is a high-spirited announcer that welcomes everyone and your eyes start to well up just hearing and seeing the Special Olympics athletes react to this welcome. How do you explain or describe pure joy with just words? The crowd in the bleachers stands and one by one the schools and teams are announced and they walk all together holding their banner. You see a young preteen girl so overcome with happiness she covers her mouth with both hands as she giggles and throws her head back with laughter. She waves at the crowd and is practically skipping. You then see a young man that is probably late teens who pretends to dribble a ball through his legs and then jumps to shoot the invisible ball. He looks at the crowd and with his arms stretched out and palms up he lifts his arms up and down signaling you to stand up and cheer people! You watch as the teachers and coaches smile and wave and some are even jumping alongside their students in excitement for them. Then here comes the cutest little boy EVER and he is just leaping up and down as high as he can with both arms lifted in the air, “Yeah baby!” he yells out loud. Then there is a group of three young adult ladies that walk side by side and are holding up one hand with the “I love you” hand signal. You can’t help but smile and almost choke on tears as some of the people in the crowd who don’t even know these sweet gals hold up their hands in the “I love you” hand signal right back. You also can’t help but want to blast “Eye of the Tiger” on your phone as you see a middle-aged athlete with his arms raised and his hands in two fists above his head like Rocky Balboa jogging to warm up.
The innocence is BEAUTIFUL.
The LOVE shared in the room makes you involuntarily emotional.
My little girl is so ecstatic she can hardly stand it. She is supposed to be helping to hold the school’s banner but she is so excited she can barely hold her hands up so a teacher gladly lends her a hand. They choose an athlete to say the pledge of allegiance and when he forgets a word no one immediately goes on Twitter and bashes him or complains, instead everyone cheers, “You can do it!” “Try again!” “You got this!” He responds so well to the encouragement and gets through it all with a big smile on his face. When he is done he walks back to his team who gather around him and give him high fives and hugs. He is loved. He is important. Then they choose another volunteer to say the Special Olympics motto. “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be BRAVE in the attempt.” Oh yes. Yes! YES! They use a faux torch with a cellophane flame as the “Flame of Hope” and about four to five athletes spread out and run with the flame to each corner of the gym for a handoff. Meanwhile the whole gym is on their feet cheering, clapping nonstop for each handoff. Now it’s time for all the kids to break off in groups and start the basketball skills competition. This is about the time you think you finally will be able to stop crying like a fool but then you notice that everyone helping in the yellow shirts...are high school students. Maybe 100 of them.
Hey so all you high school kids, you guys get a bad rap these days you know? Some teachers and parents and administrators around the country write and talk about how you have become disrespectful, rude, selfish, and entitled. Well, I am not a teacher or an administrator so they may be right but that is not what I saw that day. That day I saw almost 100 students in different grade levels being involved in a way that warmed my heart. They had no incentive for volunteering except missing a class or two, and these high school kids weren’t standing around bumming it. They were hustling, checking lists, leading the Special Olympics athletes and best of all ... they were cheering. No, dear reader, you need to understand me. Imagine the coolest kids around. Super star athletes, cheerleaders, leaders of clubs, honor roll students, all kinds of kids from all kinds of homes and all kinds of abilities, cheering. They would clap nonstop for a kid that was doing a skill so simple they themselves could do with one hand and their eyes closed. They didn’t know my girl. They didn’t know her diagnoses or our story. But it didn’t matter. They knew their role. That day they were lifting up their peers that may never have the opportunities they have and for one day they were giving back. And yes, they may have been there for volunteer hours or to look good or just to hang out with their girlfriend but I guarantee you regardless of their intent, you can’t experience something like that without building character. Some of these kids were so genuinely involved and cheering I couldn’t watch them too closely because I knew I would start to ugly cry which would totally freak them out.
So all you high school kids, imagine what that feels like for them for a second. The same kids they watch under the friday night lights, the same kids they watch lead the student council, the same kids they look up to in the hallways ... are cheering for THEM. These Special Olympics athletes long to be like you and I don’t mean necessarily that they want to play sports. It’s deeper than that. Some of them long to be “socially acceptable” like you. But you cheering for them shows them they are more than acceptable to you no matter what their diagnosis is and THAT IS POWERFUL. Never forget that being a high school athlete is not a right. It is a privilege.
When it’s all over we head outside to the awards ceremony. There is another group of student volunteers and a super pumped up volunteer announcer that with affection and excitement calls out each Special Olympics athletes full name and the school or team they represent. With her family, friends, and coaches looking on Isla receives her second medal ever. Her first medal was for Special Olympics bowling.
So I say KUDOS to all of the parents of these exceptional high school kids. I say BRAVO to the school board, administrators, and staff who said YES! to Special Olympics at their campus. I say YOU ROCK to every high school guy and girl that cheered for my little girl that day. I say YOU ARE MAKING A DIFFERENCE to every coach, volunteer and teacher that had anything to do with this event.
If you have never attended one of these events or if your kids have never attended, I challenge you to put it on your to do list for this year.
It’s just another way to view the world with a whole new per-spectrum.