By: Sarah Keith
My family loves to get involved. I cannot remember (and actually do not think I have ever experienced) a month without some sort of volunteer event, charity bike ride, or fundraiser. My mother calls it ‘Irish Charity’, and says that it is simply in our blood to do anything we can for those around us. I remember arriving at our hotel in Arizona for a vacation at 3am, and being woken up just three hours later by my parents. They had apparently been unable to sleep and, loitering in the lobby, had learned of a 4.2 mile charity run nearby and had signed our entire family up. The race started at 6:30am and all three of us kids were dragged down to the starting line. We all finished and it was actually a blast!
As a family, we do everything together. All of the volunteer events we participate in are family affairs, and while it may sound impressive getting three teenagers to coordinate their schedules so frequently, the most incredible thing about our family is that my brother James participates in every single event with us. James has Down syndrome and, while he has special needs, he is usually the most energetic one at all of the finish lines. The best way to describe him was penned by one of his teachers this year, “James does not have special needs; he has special talents”. We are very fortunate that James is so extremely high functioning. At 5’10” and 195 pounds, he defies every aspect of the textbook definition of Down syndrome. His drive to succeed in life has motivated my family to be as involved in helping others with special needs as possible, leading us to our deep connection to Special Olympics.
As soon as my parents discovered James’ disability, my dad got involved in SOMA’s fundraisers. He began with the Golf-A-Thon, completing over 5 rounds of golf (in one day!) to raise money for SOMA. Next, he started biking in any ride he could for SOMA, and eventually the rest of us joined in, participating in a dozen 25 mile rides for Special Olympics. Over the years he has risen through the ranks and is now the Chairman of the Board of Special Olympics Massachusetts, and his current yearly fundraiser for Special Olympics is the Boston Marathon, where he runs on the SOMA team.
While my dad’s fundraising does not go unnoticed, almost even more impressive is the number of SOMA events my mom coordinates every year. The year James began as an athlete in the School Day Games, about twelve years ago, the town that was supposed to host the games canceled due to rain. Not about to miss this awesome event, my mom decided to rally our town and the games were moved to North Andover, where they have remained ever since with my mom running the event. When James turned eight (the minimum age to participate in Unified Sports) there was not a local basketball program in North Andover. This was again quickly rectified by my mother, who has been running the North Andover Crusaders basketball team for the last ten years. My sister and I, always loyal volunteers, played as unified partners. On the night of the very first practice there was a giant blizzard, but this didn’t stop a traffic jam from forming outside the building where practice was held. Over 100 athletes and partners came that first night, and the numbers haven’t dipped in the last ten years.
Once my brother was in middle school, it became clear that James was the athlete of the family and basketball was not enough. So, as a family, we joined the Andover Stars soccer unified team. Several years later, when the family who ran the program ‘retired’ and stepped down, my family stepped up. The team was moved to the North Andover fields as my mom, my sister, and I began to run this team as well, with my dad continuing on as a coach.
Being a member of these Special Olympic Unified Teams has been one of the most inspiring experiences of my life. As a student at The Governor’s Academy, my sister and I were able to help run the SOMA State Soccer Tournament, the same tournament we had been attending for so many years.
As if soccer and basketball were not enough, once in high school James joined every sports team he could, and earned varsity letters in Track and Skiing on the high school teams! He is an extraordinary athlete, and is currently an alternate for the Special Olympic World Games Ski Team.
Special Olympics Massachusetts is an organization very near and dear to my family. We spend so much time volunteering and fundraising with them because we know first-hand the incredible influence Special Olympics have on athletes’ lives. James is one of the most confident, strong-willed people I know and a lot of that comes from the encouragement he has received from teammates and spectators at every SOMA event.
Having a brother with Down syndrome and a family so involved in Special Olympics has altered my life in so many important ways. I have learned that how people treat other people, regardless of their abilities, is a true judge of character. With this guiding me, I have discovered so many friends who love my family and my brother, and who have joined us in becoming involved with unified sports.
James is my best friend, and I am so thankful for him and his positive influence in my life. I am the person I am today because of the generosity I have learned from my parents, the support I have witnessed in Special Olympic sports, and as the beneficiary of the genuine smiles on every athlete I have ever had the opportunity to meet.