By Juliana Rangel-Acevedo
Edited by Cindy Swisher
I am the younger sister of an amazing individual who participates in the Special Olympics. Throughout my life, I have seen my brother struggle at school and in regular sports. He hid in the neuro-typical world, but he finally came to realize that he did not have to pretend to be “normal” in the Special Olympics. Special Olympics is the perfect avenue for people with a mental disabilities to express themselves without fear of being judged or criticized.
The Special Olympics, founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, started out as a small summer camp for kids with special needs. Shriver noticed that people with special needs were treated unfairly and was determined to create a program to help them. She became the director of the camp, as well as the manager of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation. She also served as a member on John F. Kennedy’s White House panel. The organization grew, but it was not until December 2, 1968, that the Special Olympics was formed.
The program was designed to help people with special needs receive, “contriving opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy, and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills, and friendship with their families, other Special Olympic athletes, and the community,” as stated by the Mission of Special Olympics. There are a variety of sports available in the program, from swimming to basketball to bowling.
This program also allows athletes to socialize with other athletes, make lifelong friendships, and express themselves freely. Lindsey Johnson, a Pinellas County paddleboard athlete, agrees, adding, “I love it, and I love going on the bus and being myself and being with my friends!”
It even gives volunteers, coaches, friends, and family a chance to learn from the athletes themselves. “You’re gonna hear people say that athletes teach us the most,” says David Haines, a director of Pinellas Special Olympics for 27 years.
Many parents have seen a significant change within their children since their involvement in Special Olympics. “I have seen [Lindsey’s] coordination get better, and I have also seen her make many amazing friends,” states Therese Johnson, mother of Lindsey Johnson. Another mother shares that she is happy to see the athletes live a healthy lifestyle.
When asked about Special Olympics and how the athletes helped them change, one parent exclaimed that she learned about patience and how to respect other families with disabled children. Another parent shared that he learned perseverance and to not speak poorly of others. “It’s amazing how my son changed my perspective of life,” shared Maria Acevedo, mother of Santiago Rangel-Acevedo. “He taught me perseverance, determination, and that no one is better, or worse, than any one else; they merely go at their own pace.”
Even the volunteers have seen great changes in themselves after spending time in the program. Many admitted to coming simply for volunteer hours but added that they feel much better when helping out the athletes; one even disclosing that it helps relieve stress. “I came here because my mom told me about it. She knew I had to fill up my volunteer hours, so I decided to help. It’s really fun!”, shared Tyler Garvin. His friend Isabelle Peterson added, “I like seeing the smiles of the people and helping the athletes out. I also get to spend more time outside.” Many volunteers at the Special Olympics Paddleboard competition intend to return and help out again.
What started out as a small summer camp run by a single woman has become a huge organization devoted to helping people with special needs feel like they are a part of something bigger.
“Being without a disability, people without a disability, it’s easy to get emotional, get competitive, and when you see the athletes in a totally different light, they don’t get so serious sometimes. When they take it a different way, it changes our way of thinking as well.” –David Haines