Lauren Wears Many Hats

This is an excerpt from a speech by Special Olympics Athlete and Global Messenger, Lauren to the Special Olympics Massachusetts Board of Directors on February 28, 2017:

Throughout my involvement in Special Olympics I have held many titles; global messenger, head coach, volunteer, fundraiser, team coordinator, lobbyist, committee member and master of ceremonies. But the title that I cherish the most, the one that I hold close to my heart is athlete. Titles come and go but being an athlete is something no one can ever take away from you. I started Special Olympics when I was 9 years old. To my 9 year old Special Olympics meant friends. By 14 years old my disabilities became so overpowering in my life I moved to a residential school. To my 14 year old self Special Olympics was a loving connection to home. At 18 years old I was living on my own for the first time and experienced all the ups and downs that being a young adult entails. To my 18 year old self Special Olympics was a constant reminder to be true to myself. When I was 21 I encountered some difficult choices regarding my future. To my 21 year old self Special Olympics was the family that stood behind me while I made those decisions. I am now 25. To me Special Olympics is hope. Hope for the mother whose son starts showing signs of autism in preschool. Hope for the father whose disabled adult son applies for a job because he gained the confidence needed by being a team captain. Hope for the brother who never thought his wheelchair bound sister would ever play catch with him until he saw her compete in the softball throw. Hope. Because Hope is the foundation in which all other notions are built upon. And because Special Olympics doesn’t just change lives, it builds futures.

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The Day that “Changed My Family Forever”

The Kettle Family are great leaders and ambassadors of the Special Olympics Mission. Below Colleen Kettle shares her story (What she doesn’t mention is the great work that her and her son Andrew do in being volunteer leaders of our annual Special Olympics Basketball Tournament at Weston High School)…

In 2004, while I was sitting in the Middle School cafeteria waiting for my two older daughters to finish their play rehearsal, a group of male athletes dressed in basketball uniforms walked by me. I assumed they were there to play our high school team. When a group of younger boy and girl athletes, accompanied by students from Weston High School, walked by, I was curious, so I stopped one of the students and asked him what was going on. He told me Weston High School was hosting the Special Olympics Basketball Qualifiers, something they do every year. I was shocked because I thought Special Olympics (SO) was only for people with Down Syndrome and clearly not all the athletes had that condition. As soon as I got home I visited the SO website and learned that its mission is to provide year round athletic training and competition for children and adults with intellectual disabilities (that includes many conditions such as Down Syndrome). That day changed my family forever because I have a son, Jeffrey, who has intellectual disabilities. At the time he was nine years old; he loved sports but the pace of the games in traditional sports was overwhelming him so we had to drop him down a grade (we had already held him back in kindergarten so that meant he was playing with kids who were two years younger than him). He was friendly and outgoing but none of the other special ed kids at his school were like him. As parents we longed to meet other parents who were going through what we were going through.

 

SOMA athlete Jeff Kettle (in yellow) competing for Boston College Juniors before he went to off to College on Cape Cod.

SOMA athlete Jeff Kettle (in yellow) competing for Boston College Juniors before he went to off to College on Cape Cod.

We immediately signed up for the Special Olympics basketball team at Boston College. The first day Jeffrey and his dad showed up the volunteers made Jeffrey feel like a superstar! While Jeffrey showed off his skills on the basketball court, my husband Frank sat on the sidelines and talked to the other parents. Boy, did he learn a lot! For the first time he could share his concerns and have someone empathize and/or offer a solution. The off the court time was as valuable as the on the court time. Jeffrey was a member of the younger team, the BC Juniors, who practiced at the same time as the senior team, so Frank got to know many of the older players who were quite outgoing. When the qualifiers were held at Milton Academy that year, a location not accessible by public transportation, Frank offered to drive some of the adult athletes. He learned that they lived in a group home near the Green Line and they alternated cooking (depending on the person assigned, some nights were great and all agreed some were awful). It made him smile because he could imagine a future for Jeffrey in a house on the Green Line near BC with fellow residents who loved (or hated) his cooking.

 

Fast forward: Jeffrey is turning twenty-one this month and he is finishing his fourth year at a residential school on the Cape for students with special needs called Riverview School. When he started at the age of 17 ½, his reading level was grade 2.6 (second grade, sixth month) in September but by June his reading level was 5.8 (grade five, eighth month). We were thrilled because it told us that the goals previously set for him were low and that some people need to be taught in a different way. His four years there have been amazing! He has made friends (and girlfriends), some of whom were people he previously competed against in Special Olympics. and he is a three-season athlete at Riverview as well as a coach for the high school teams AND he competes on the Special Olympics Sandwich Sharks swim team. In June Jeffrey will graduate from his work program and he will move into a privately owned staffed group home in Newton Highlands on the Green Line where nine other residents like him (many of whom are from Riverview) live. He will continue to compete in Special Olympics, most likely at BC, and we hope he will meet people like Frank who will drive him to games when public transportation is not an option. I am confident Jeffrey will charm them with his conversational skills because I don’t think he will be able to do so with his cooking!

Colleen Kettle

A mom who is grateful WHS hosted the games in 2004 and is now happily the parent advisor for the WHS Class of 2017, who has the honor of hosting the games for their four years at WHS.

Fully Alive

The following is by Susan Senator, a writer, activist and the mother of a Special Olympics athlete. 

On December 9th I attended Tim Shriver’s book event at the JFK Library in Boston as a guest of Special Olympics Massachusetts. The book Fully Alive: Discovering What Matters Most, is a combination memoir, biography, and philosophical piece by Special Olympics Chairman Tim, son of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who started Special Olympics. WBUR’s Deborah Becker joined Tim and facilitated the conversation with a masterful subtlety.

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Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver with WBUR’s Deborah Becker at the JFK Library.

As expected, Tim talked about the disability movement, and how it originated largely due to his uncle, President John F. Kennedy, who was the first president to invite an intellectually disabled person to the White House, who helped launch several initiatives to research intellectual disability and began the movement to close institutions. Tim also discussed the influences in his life: his mom and his Aunt Rosemary, who had an intellectual disability. The delightful surprise was hearing Tim talk about his own exploration of mysticism and how it all led back to the disability movement. “You have to come to an interior place,” he said, “And in that space, you will become who you are.” That’s his mind-bending way of saying that once you can relax enough into just being yourself, you will finally know what’s important in life. He illustrated this philosophy but asking us, the audience, to imagine a United States where everyone is employed. Everyone, even the intellectually disabled. “Can you imagine that?” he asked, smiling. We didn’t realize at first that he was actually asking us to imagine it. So we did. “Now that you have imagined it, you should try to figure out how to make it so. But first you have to be invited to imagine it.” That imagining is not something most of us are asked to do.

But Special Olympic Athletes are asked to imagine succeeding — perhaps for the first time in their lives. Everywhere else they are “accommodated.” Educated –by mandate, and if you think about it, that implies that you have to do it. Because the law requires it. But in Special Olympics, the Athlete can imagine himself winning, all out, sweaty and panting. The first three words of the Special Olympics oath itself epitomizes this: “Let me win.” (Hey, by the way, do “Real” Olympic Athletes have an oath? Hmmm.)

It is a challenge speaking and writing about Special Olympics and the disability rights movement because everyone already thinks they know what you’re going to say: “Awww, it’s just so doggone special.” This is the basic reaction when you mention Special Olympics. Yes, dammit, of course, but that’s so beside the point. What makes Special O truly special, is that it is one place in life where the “fun is important, and the important is fun,” as Tim put it. “We have a backwards view of Special Olympics,” he said. “We’re trying to prove that our athletes are just like everyone else, that they’re going to fit in.” But the great secret of Special Olympics is that when you come over to their world, the world of the athletes, you get a chance to be just exactly who you are. Everyone involved with Special Olympics gets the chance to be, no matter where they start. You come to an event and you see people you are not used to looking at. Down syndrome, everywhere. People with autism flapping, people dragging walkers. All ages, all shapes. You’re in the minority. You with your big shot Able body. You are not the star there. If you’re a volunteer, a coach, or even the President of Special Olympics, at the games you are wearing a team tee shirt, not a coat and tie. So you relax. If you’re a parent like me, you are not judged. Or pitied. Better yet, your kid is not judged — except by the refs, the timekeepers. This is a sports competition, after all, so some people get the fastest or highest score. Only some get the gold medal. They all want it, but they don’t all get that gold and that in itself is spectacular. There are standards, but somehow, there is also equality.

How is that possible? Sportsmanship. And there is no good sport like a Special Olympian. If I may make a sweeping generalization: they know how it feels to be humbled. Tim, who has met world leaders and shmoozed the best of the best minds, described how Nelson Mandela was a Special Olympics fan, showing up when he wasn’t even expected. And so Tim asked Mandela to “teach” him” some of his incredible life’s lessons.

“I learned what every prisoner knows,” Mandela said. “Humility and simplicity. But you don’t need me to teach you,” he said. “You have the athletes.”

Susan Senator
susansenator.com

Reilly receives “Samantha Marcia Stevens Award”

Melissa was surprised and thrilled by receiving the award from Brian and Kathy Stevens

Melissa was surprised and thrilled by receiving the award from Brian and Kathy Stevens.

Melissa Reilly, 28, of Boxborough was recently honored at Gillette Stadium during the Special Olympics Massachusetts State Flag Football Championships with the “Samantha Marcia Stevens Award”. The award is presented to honor excellence in raising positive awareness for the skills and strengths of people with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities.

Reilly is an accomplished Special Olympics athlete. She has given numerous speeches including the keynote address at the 2009 Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress and the 2012 Special Olympics Massachusetts Hall of Fame. A graduate of Acton-Boxborough High School and a student at Middlesex Community College, Melissa is on staff in the office of State Senator Jamie Eldridge. Melissa has also been inducted into the Special Olympics Massachusetts Hall of Fame in 2010.

The Stevens family (Brian Jr., Josie, Brian, Kathy), Melissa Reilly, Former NFL Player Steve Deiossie, SOMA President and CEO Mary Beth McMahon

The Stevens family (Brian Jr., Josie, Brian, Kathy), Melissa Reilly, Former NFL Player Steve Deiossie, SOMA President and CEO Mary Beth McMahon.

The award was presented by Brian and Kathryn Stevens, advocates from Marlborough, who named the award after their daughter Samantha, an eight-year old with Down syndrome. “If it were not for heroes like Melissa Reilly, my Wife and I’s charitable endeavors may have gone differently,” said Brian Stevens, “she has inspired us to be even better and donate even more to the programs that enhance her, as well as Samantha’s life.”

Previously the Stevens family had presented this award to Lauren Potter, an actress with Down syndrome who stars in the television series, Glee.

A Beacon of Hope

The following is a speech given by Special Olympics Massachusetts athlete and Global Messenger Lauren Hopper to Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc. 

“Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt”. This phrase has been resonating through my mind; lending me the strength and the courage to come speak with you all today. In ancient Rome these words were spoken by gladiators to prepare themselves for the arena. In Special Olympics, these words are spoken by the athletes, as the athlete’s oath, to prepare themselves for competition. Hello Everyone. My name is Lauren Hopper. I have been an athlete in the Special Olympics for 13 years. Special Olympics is a worldwide program that serves individuals with intellectual disabilities ages 8 and up. Special Olympics Massachusetts offers training and competition in 27 sports year round. This gives athletes a variety of activities to choose from and an opportunity to stay physically active at all times. Special Olympics has something for every ability level and each year athletes get better in their sport. Longer races, faster times, improved technique, a smoother back hand or jump shot. This instills confidence and allows the athletes to come out of their comfort zone and try new things. However, anyone can become involved even if they don’t have a disability. Unified partners, coaches, officials, volunteers and opportunities to participate in fundraising events, like over the edge, polar plunge and 5K races. This shows that Special Olympics is all inclusive and values giving equal respect to everyone.

Special Olympics athletes, left to right, Gregg Gallant, Lauren Hopper and Matt Millett.

Special Olympics athletes, left to right, Gregg Gallant, Lauren Hopper and Matt Millett.

The ocean spray diversity vision is to, “Create an inclusive culture in which individual perspectives are valued and differences leveraged for greater opportunities”. Special Olympics was founded with that same vision and through dedication and resourcefulness that vision has been made a reality. The Ocean Spray company website states, “We at Ocean Spray continue to pride ourselves on the tradition of innovation and resourcefulness.” Special Olympics was founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver during a time where people with intellectual disabilities were not widely accepted by their community. Since then Special Olympics has introduced and implemented a number of innovative concepts. These include unified sports, where athletes with intellectual disabilities play on the same team alongside athletes without disabilities and the R-Word campaign. Ocean Spray was started by 3 cranberry growers who shared a love of cranberries and wanted to create unique products that others could enjoy. Special Olympics was started as a day camp by a family who shared the love they had for their disabled sister and wanted others to be able experience that unique love. With these humble beginnings Ocean Spray and Special Olympics have both grown and paved the way for new ideas. Just imagine what they could accomplish working together. I am humbled by how much the employees here at Ocean Spray have already taken part in this incredible organization. Thank you all so much. From the bottom of my heart I truly appreciate everything you have done for us athletes.

As Special Olympics is a non-profit organization, it relies heavily on its volunteers to keep everything running smoothly. The generous volunteers and donors are the backbone of this organization, for without them, Special Olympics would not be able to offer all the incredible things they do for their athletes. Being a volunteer isn’t just about donating time, money or equipment, it’s so much more. It will bring a smile to your face long after the event is over.

When my parents chose to sign me up for Special Olympics, I was 10 years old. At that point I was just beginning to have struggles in mainstream life. Special Olympics gave me a safe haven; somewhere I could be myself without fear ridicule. Because of how I looked and how I acted, I rarely found that elsewhere. I acquired a sense of belonging that I had never felt anywhere else. I found people who could look past my exterior and see the real me. Because of my disability I was told that I would never become a functioning member of society. Special Olympics gave me hope. The practices showed me how to follow through with my commitments. The competitions taught me to believe in and prove to myself that I can succeed. Losing a race taught me how to deal with disappointment but to be content with the loss knowing I had given it my very best. Having the option to compete in multiple sports year-round has allowed me to become comfortable in trying new things. I have developed confidence and independence by staying overnight with my team during state tournaments. Helping the younger athletes has given me leadership skills. Inadvertently, Special Olympics has prepared me for life. And, throughout my life, Special Olympics has been a beacon of hope. At times, I have felt like a ship stuck in a storm at sea. All the cargo piled up inside, weighing me down. The angry waves crashing over me. The dark night and storm clouds closing in on all sides. And just when I am on the verge of sinking, a light shines in the distance. As that light grows brighter I stop trying to fight my way through the dark stormy sea and instead allow the light to help and guide me to where I want to be. For if I am a ship lost in a storm at sea then Special Olympics is my lighthouse. When my parents signed me up for Special Olympics they were thinking that it would allow me to continue playing sports; something that I love to do. What they didn’t realize, was that in doing so they were ensuring my future. Special Olympics not only saved my life but it presented me with the ability to live that life fully and to my potential.

Every Special Olympics athlete is unique and each of us gets something different out of being part of this organization. For example. There is a boy on my swim team who when he first joined Special Olympics was in foster care. Because of trauma in his past he was terrified of water. His foster family had a pool and the mother wanted him to be able to swim in case he fell in by accident. She signed him up for Special Olympics because he refused to take swim lessons. The first few practices he would not even go near the water but he still kept coming back every week. The next practice he sat on the pools edge with a life jacket. The practice after that he stood in the shallow end with a coach holding on to him. Every practice there was progression. And when it came time for competition he was able to swim the whole length of the pool by himself. Special Olympics helped him to triumph over his severe trauma.

When I was in middle school, one of my teammates faced constant bullying at school making him miserable. One day I witnessed the bullying and being brave in the attempt, I stood up for him. A few weeks later his mom called mine in tears, saying how much happier he was and that he was starting to make friends. This boy was accepted into Harvard University and is currently attending Clark University for his masters in education. Special Olympics gave him courage, which helped him to rediscover his love of school.

Another one of my teammates is nonverbal and confined to a wheelchair. Despite that her mind is very bright. When she first joined Special Olympics she had a hard time letting her personality shine through. Now, even though she cannot speak and has very little control over her movement she can have an entire conversation just using her personality. For example at a recent unified event she was joking on one of our coaches. Her personality was so contagious that the entire room got in on the conversation, got in on the joke, which of course ended in laughs from everyone. Special Olympics helped her to find a way to express herself.

One of my teammates has a son who was born with a rare genetic disorder. As a young mom with a disability herself she was overwhelmed with the hospitalizations, surgery, diet and supervision her son constantly needed. 2/12 years later she now feels confident in her abilities as a mom. The other athlete’s parents were a wealth of knowledge for her and she even found a new friend; an athlete from a different team who has the same disorder as her son. Special Olympics helped her to become more confident in her ability as a mother and more hopeful for her sons future.

As these examples show you, Special Olympics offers so much more than simply sports for individuals with intellectual disabilities. A 2008 Cone Cooperate Citizenship study found that 85% of Americans have a more positive image of a product or company when it supports a cause that they care about. Special Olympics has well over 500,000 athletes in North America alone and each of those athletes has family and friends who have seen firsthand the positive impact Special Olympics has had. Special Olympics is a cause that people care about. The joy that Special Olympics bestows upon those involved is contagious. I chose Special Olympics many years ago and I am standing before you today to tell you That Special Olympics Massachusetts is the right choice. Choose to improve the future. Choose to instill joy. Choose Special Olympics Massachusetts.

Thank you.

Student Leader

Kara DiGregorio is a Milford High School student, a passionate youth leader and proof that the future is bright for inclusion and acceptance for all. The following is a speech she wrote for her school’s R-Word assembly on March 20th. 

“The greatest gift that you can give to others is the gift of unconditional love and acceptance.” quoted from Brian Tracy.  Hi, my name is Kara DiGregorio, and I am a junior here at Milford High. Throughout my life, I have been fortunate to have figured things out at a very young age. I experienced things early on in my life, things that not every kid can experience. In sixth grade, I was asked to help out with our local Special Olympics basketball team. From that moment on I have been blessed to work with such incredible people. From the smiles, to the laughs, to the hard times, I could not thank Jen Walsh and Milford Special Olympics enough for all they’ve done for me. Being in middle school and standing up for something that you believe in was not easy, as you could imagine, but every Monday night when I was at practices with the Special Olympic athletes, I was given strength from each and every single one of them.

Kara DiGregorio

Kara DiGregorio

Special Olympics is a movement towards overall inclusion, beginning with sports. Today, sports are such a huge part of the society, and they create a certain common interest in all athletes.  Having that common passion or interest is a great way to start building friendships. The amount of friendships that I have seen made as a result of basketball or track practices are truly inspiring.

Another great way that I’ve seen friendships made is by the club we have here at Milford, Best Buddies. From starting in 8th grade, to now being the president, I have seen so many friendships come in and out of the club. It has helped transform the vision of students with intellectual disabilities from negative to positive. Confidence in this school has also increased, creating a friendly and judgmental-free zone for the students with an intellectual disability.

The campaign, Spread the Word to End the Word’s main goal is to remove the word “retard” from vocabulary as a whole. There are so many hurtful and discriminating words that need to be ended, including the r-word. Everyone in this room has a certain phrase or adjective that they’d love to see erased from our vocabulary, whether others intend to use it for the literal meaning or not. So why do we use these words? To put down others? To feel superior? Because I am positive that the most confident I would ever be in my life would be the day that overall acceptance existed and these stereotypical words didn’t. The term acceptance is defined as the action or process of being received as adequate or suitable, typically to be admitted into a certain group. Well, what if every single one of us didn’t have to worry about being judged, or included into a certain group?

What if we lived in a world where everyone was happy because we were all treated fairly and equally like we should be? Let’s change these ‘what ifs’ into actual actions. Let’s focus less on the word DISABILITY, and more on the words ABILITY, and CAPABILITY because the only disability that I see is a bad attitude and not finding joy in life. I am so confident in this movement, and in our school to begin this journey towards inclusion together, all we need is to pledge to stop using such hurtful words, and to think before we speak. I am so proud to be a part of our generation, beginning the transformation of stereotypes into overall inclusion. So together, let’s promise to make this change within our community because I know that someday we all will be responsible for the huge success that this movement will become.

Thank you!