As I anxiously sat in my car staring at Green Valley High School, the radio played in the background as a million thoughts raced through my mind- what am I going to be doing during practice? I’m not familiar with track and field at all, so what if I mess something up? What if I accidentally say something that hurts or upsets somebody? Am I going to be able to help these people in any way? As the time neared 8:00, I walked over to the crowd of people and introduced myself to the head coach before standing off to the side, not wanting to disturb anybody. It was only a minute before Nick came up to me, introduced himself, welcomed me to the practice, and made my day a whole lot brighter. From then, it was only a short time before I began to realize why Special Olympics is such a fitting name for this group of individuals.
Special Olympics is an organization that was started in 1968 with the mission of providing individuals with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to participate and compete in Olympic-type sports. Athletes can choose to participate in one of several sports, including basketball, track and field, swimming, and bowling. Athletes then attend a weekly practice and train in their chosen sport prior to competing in the regional competition held at the end of the season. Aside from providing these individuals with a priceless smile and a genuine sense of joy, Special Olympics also works for the acceptance and inclusion of all individuals in society and strives to inspire community members to see people with a disability through a different light- one that focuses on their abilities rather than their disabilities and one that acknowledges our similarities while celebrating our differences.
I’ve wanted to work with individuals with disabilities for a while, but as I pondered this thought, two things quickly became clear- I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about working with individuals with disabilities and I wanted to use this opportunity to change that. I wanted to immerse myself in a setting I was unfamiliar with in hopes of growing and learning more. I initially chose Special Olympics because I’ve seen commercials for this organization before and they’ve all pulled on my heart strings. I also liked that Special Olympics works with individuals having a mixture of disabilities and thought that this would be more worthwhile, as I’d be able to see and interact with individuals having a greater variety of disabilities. Further, earlier this year, I was in a long-term substitute position for an Early Childhood Special Education class and absolutely loved it. The students had a range of disabilities, including autism, processing disorders, ADHD, Down Syndrome, and a few others. Though I was interacting with these students on a daily basis, I felt inferior and guilty because I didn’t know anything about these disabilities and wasn’t helping them as much as I could’ve due to a lack of knowledge. I wanted to change this and thought that Special Olympics would be a good start because it’d give me exposure to a variety of disabilities. There was also an additional sense of comfort in knowing that my professor for Special Education would be there too. I wasn’t afraid of interacting with these individuals necessarily, but I was scared of doing something wrong or messing up in one way or another. Having her there added a safety net for me and allowed me to get much more out of this experience than I otherwise would have.
Since March, my Sundays have had a cherry on top because I’m able to spend time with a special group of individuals. From week to week, my tasks vary, but there’s rarely a dull moment. In the first week, I mostly just observed what was going on and got a sense for how the practices were set up. I walked around and watched all of the events for a little bit and helped with a few small things. Starting in week two, I took on a more active role and engaged myself more. I started directly interacting with the athletes and helped the head coaches measure distances and times for various events. Though my tasks changed weekly, there are a few things that remained consistent- I always look forward to Sunday mornings, the athletes painted the biggest smile on my face, and the athletes had senses of respect and gratitude that were both admirable and inspiring. Perhaps the most frequent activity is cheering on athletes as they threw a softball or a shot put and ran in 50m, 100m, and 200m dashes. As the coaches and volunteers scream and clap, the athletes join in, cheering on their fellow team members. It’s more touching, though, to see the athletes complete their event and then walk up to volunteers and thank them for cheering. This sight is one that melted and broke my heart at the same time. On the one hand, I’m inspired and amazed at the immense respect and gratitude that these athletes show towards each other and community members as a whole. At the same time though, hearing them thank us for cheering them on makes me think that this may not be something they hear often. When typical individuals participate in a team sport, people always cheer us on, but we never think to thank them because it’s something that we expect and take for granted. While this upsets me, it also makes me even more thankful that an organization like Special Olympics exists and gives these individuals the chance to participate in sports while being supported and cheered on- something that the rest of us always get, yet sometimes don’t understand, or appreciate, the value of.
Though every Sunday morning somehow goes by too fast, I still manage to learn a ton while volunteering. While it’s helpful to read about various disabilities in a textbook or online, it’s an entire different experience to interact with individuals having these disabilities. When you spend time with them and see for yourself how they think, act, and behave, your perception of these disabilities becomes a lot less blurred and you start to develop a stronger understanding of them. For example, a few of the athletes have autism, but they act differently from one another and exhibit different behaviors. Joe and Max are calm and quiet while Joey runs around the field and experiments with his voice box. I’m also able to interact with Reggie and learn of a disability caused by one twin not getting enough oxygen during conception and birth. I’d never heard of this, yet am intrigued and curious to learn how to better help individuals like Reggie. I spend time with Mary and learn of a growth disorder that causes her to grow too fast. Though I’ve heard of disorders similar to this before, I’d never had the opportunity to interact with someone affected by this, and thus, I never had a clear understanding of such a disability. Finally, Nick- Nick is an athlete who has an intellectual disability. I had never encountered anyone having an intellectual disability, but I feel beyond privileged to be able to interact with Nick and to get to know him. I’ve heard and read about intellectual disabilities, but no article or fact sheet could ever encompass who these individuals truly are. We often seek out such sources online because they provide a lot of good information, but it seems that they tend to focus on weaknesses, anticipated areas of struggle, or tips for working with people with such a disability- they don’t mention that these individuals may be great, loyal friends, incredibly fast runners, have a great sense of humor, or be a person who spreads love to everyone as if it were candy. This is one area where I think society falls short and plays a harmful role in creating these false, often negative, stigmas towards individuals with disabilities. Instead of focusing solely, or mainly, on their weaknesses or areas of struggle, I wish we’d be more apt to highlight their strengths and draw on them more often to help these individuals feel welcomed and included in our community. While I had heard of most of these disabilities prior to volunteering, I didn’t understand them the way I do now and I certainly didn’t realize how much I’d learn about myself during these four weeks.
As I continue to interact with the athletes week after week, I gradually realized that I’m not the same person I was as I nervously sat in my car on March 18th. When one chooses to volunteer, it seems that there’s an underlying assumption that his/her work will help others in some way- in other words, someone will benefit as a result of your time or energy. While this is true most of the time, I’m fortunate enough to have a double sided coin throughout this experience. As I volunteer, I realize that I too am learning, smiling, benefiting, and having meaningful life experiences. As I often hear Nick give a friendly boast about how great of a runner he is, I can only nod in agreement and smile at his confidence. Through Nick, I’ve learned that having self-confidence is perhaps a good thing to have and may come in handy sometimes. I’ve struggled with self-confidence for a while and often place high expectations on myself. I want to do everything perfect, and when I don’t, I get upset and focus on my mistakes, entirely ignoring the 95% that I did correctly. This mentality is probably not healthy and I’m trying to change it, so seeing Nick be confident is truly something special and inspiring. When I cheer on the athletes and see their faces light up as if it were Christmas morning, I’m reminded to appreciate the small things and to realize the value in life’s little joys. With having a rather busy schedule, this is something that I’m not always good at, but the past four weeks have shown me just how powerful it can be and I’ve been trying to do it more. On a grander scale, I’ve learned that our society has a lot of stereotypes and stigmas towards individuals with disabilities that are false, negative, and hurtful, often without reason. I’m not sure why these constructs are in existence, but I’m dreaming of a day when all individuals will be treated equally and fairly in society and I’m imagining how we could make such a change. I’ve also been gifted the opportunity to view the world through a different lens- one that is much wider, cleaner, and more innocent than my own. When I volunteer with these athletes, it’s as if I’m being transported to a different society- one in which judgment, mistakes, doubt, and fear don’t exist. Spending time with the athletes provides me an escape from reality and brings me to a place where I don’t have to stress about messing up, I don’t have to fear about doing something wrong, and I don’t have to worry about not being good enough. The athletes welcome me with open arms and ignore the many flaws I have, making me wish that our entire society would be so inviting and accepting. As a result of volunteering, I’ve found myself often thinking of thoughts that I’ve never considered before- what changes in the community would help these individuals most, how can we change the way they’re viewed and treated in society, and how can we show them the same love that they show us unconditionally? Despite how much joy I am treated to every Sunday morning though, I eventually realized that volunteering with Special Olympics isn’t about what this organization can do for me. Instead, it is about learning of a population that deserves more community assistance and awareness. It is about erasing the fears, stereotypes, and stigmas tied to individuals with disabilities and realizing that most of them aren’t true. More than anything, it is about developing a sense of care and a desire to help these people who want nothing more than to be accepted in a society that is often too quick to judge without understanding, too quick to assume with asking, and too quick to ignore without stopping.
While every moment spent on that luscious, green grass is special, I suppose there are a few stories that stand out from the rest. First and foremost, I’ll never be able to forget Shane’s genuine laugh and smile as he imitates me having my hands on my hips. He always catches me, even when I think he isn’t looking, and hearing his laugh makes my days just a bit brighter. On the first day of practice, I was watching athletes throw the shot put. After standing there for a few seconds, Crystelle came up to me and told me that I didn’t have to just watch- I could practice throwing too. I told her I didn’t know how to and this led her to show me, step by step, with the utmost patience and kindness. She modeled it perfectly and then allowed me to try while watching and helping me, marking just one example of the numerous things these individuals can teach us if we’d just be more willing to listen. There’s also the morning when Christina and Reggie walked around the track with me, both of them beaming with excitement about the dance they attended the previous night at Opportunity Village. I recall how innocent, genuine, and precious they sounded as they told me all about their night. At one point, they told me that they did the Cha Cha Slide dance and this led Reggie to give me a demonstration- what a special memory! On my fourth day of volunteering, I was helping one of the teams who was doing a relay. The head coach wanted a volunteer at each stage with the athlete and seconds later, I had Nick and Reggie next to me, both of them saying that they wanted me to be with them. I was humbled and honored, yet am hoping that they both realize how special they made that moment for me. As I was leaving a few weeks ago, I said bye to Nick and as we hugged, he said “have a good week. Please be careful.” This is something that’s stayed with me since because it’s such a simple phrase, yet is so meaningful and substantial. Yet again, he had managed to touch my heart in a million ways- as I continue to volunteer, I realize that this is something that these athletes do for me regularly.
All of this leads me to think about the word “disabilities”- the word we’ve chosen to link with these individuals. First off, I think that the word disability is tied to a negative connotation and one that suggests individuals with a disability are broken somehow; for one reason or another, we need to try and fix them. While I understand that disabilities do affect an individual’s life, I think that the assumption is too often that these disabilities affect the individual’s entire life. For example, when I think of Nick, he may have an intellectual disability, but he can run faster than I’ll ever be able to- when speaking about individuals with disabilities though, this latter part is often forgotten, ignored, or underestimated. Though not intentional, we have the tendency to equate the disability to the entire person and use the disability as the main defining characteristic. While this is an odd and random thought, if I had my way, disabilities would instead be “difabilities”- in this way, the term wouldn’t describe a person who is disabled and needs to be fixed, but would instead describe a person who simply has different abilities. While I know such a change is unlikely, the thought of it is still fantasizing. After all, we all have unique talents and I can only imagine how beautiful of a canvas we’d be able to create if everyone was encouraged to splatter their own paint.
Though my first season of volunteering with Special Olympics is nearly over, I’m elated that I have plenty of seasons remaining. Despite how nervous and afraid I may have felt as I sat in my car, listening to the ticking clock and watching the crowd of athletes grow larger every few seconds, this moment later emerged as a rather special one- it marked the opening sentence of a chapter that’s already filled with a hundred priceless memories, yet has a thousand more waiting to be written. Throughout my schooling years, I’ve learned time and time again that the purest form of education is to observe with your own eyes and to fully immerse yourself into the context you’re learning about. Though I know this in my mind, sometimes it’s a task easier said than done. There are a lot of stereotypes and stigmas about individuals with disabilities in our society, and while they’re all false, the unfortunate truth is that they’re in existence and they can play a part in shaping our perception of these individuals. It often isn’t until we personally interact with them that we can begin to erase our false, preconceived notions and see these people for who they truly are- talented, kind, inspirational, and loving individuals. By volunteering with Special Olympics, I’ve been gifted with a more accurate understanding of people with disabilities, lots of invaluable experiences, and most special, an eraser of my own that I can carry into the community going forward.