A Passion for Special Olympics

By: Jennifer Walsh

jen-walsh1My name is Jennifer Walsh and I am the volunteer Local Program Coordinator for the Special Olympics program in Milford. Our local program began 22 years ago with four athletes and one track coach. We have since grown to include over 250 athletes and Unified partners, along with 30 coaches.

Special Olympics has become a passion of mine as I have seen the difference that it makes in our athletes lives as well as their families, other volunteers and anyone involved. My favorite part of being involved is seeing all of the accomplishments the athletes make on and off the field. The reaction from an athlete after they get their first basket, or they finish their first race, or deliver their first speech, is pure joy. The confidence and growth that is exhibited as our athletes become successful is inspiring. These moments keep me going, as running a local program at times can be very challenging.

As a volunteer Local Program Coordinator, I am responsible for fundraising, networking, public relations, providing equipment, facilities, uniforms, transportation, directing, supervising, and coordinating of athletic events, recruiting volunteers, and budgeting. Most days it feels like a juggling act, as I also work full-time as a Special Education Administrator. But all I have to do is attend a practice or event and I am reminded why I do what I do. For me, it’s all about the athletes and their families and giving our athletes the tools they need to succeed in life. By providing opportunities for physical activity, social interaction, independence, and life skills that transcend beyond sports, we are helping our athletes lead successful, confident, rewarding lives.

For me nothing is better than sharing in this success. So no matter what it takes I will do the best I can along with the many volunteers and coaches to keep our Special Olympics program in Milford the best that it can be.

 

Angels are Among Us

But these Angels Don’t Have Wings, they Have Sneakers.

Sixty angels with running shoes jingled down Commonwealth Avenue in Boston earlier this month. Who are these angels you might ask? They are Johnny’s Angels, a group of wonderfully caring people who came together on a cold winter morning to run the streets of Boston and raise money for Special Olympics Massachusetts. And who is Johnny you ask? He is John Bogosian, team leader and Special Olympics Massachusetts board member who worked tirelessly to make sure his angels were the top fundraising team for the 2016 Jolly Jaunt Boston sponsored by New Balance. Amazingly, this a position they have held for the last five years.johnnys-angels-team-photo

In their seven years running as a team, Johnny’s Angels has raised more than $130,000 for Special Olympics athletes across Massachusetts. And their team has grown from a small group of friends in 2009 to 60 runners in 2016. One of those runners, who joined the team four years ago and happens to be the top fundraiser for the 2016 Jolly Jaunt Boston, is Julie Cristello. This year Julie raised over $1400 for the cause, more than double what her goal was. Her secret to raising so much, “remind people that any contribution is meaningful whether it’s $5 or $500. Even small acts of kindness can make a big difference. Also, reaching out to as many people possible can help increase your fundraising amount.”

Julie joined the team when she learned that friend, and team leader, John Bogosian is affiliated with Special Olympics. “My 51-year-old uncle has down syndrome, and competed in Special Olympics events held at Boston University. He used to run track and compete in the relay event. Because of that I wanted to get involved.” Having a family member with an intellectual disability Julie understands how important Special Olympics is to the athletes. “To me, Special Olyjulie-photompics is another form of peer-support. Being around others who are similar to you is an initiative that has been extremely beneficial in the mental health field. I think there’s a shared experience among people with disabilities, that others may not completely understand. Additionally, athletics are a way to develop skills such as teamwork, and confidence, and promote good health. Although Uncle John does not compete anymore, I’m really excited to provide others with the same opportunity that he’s had.”

Thanks to Cristello and all of Johnny’s Angels, more athletes like Uncle John will experience what it feels like score a goal in soccer or run a relay as part of a Special Olympics team. Johnny’s Angels are true angels whose efforts make a difference every day in the lives of Special Olympics athletes across Massachusetts. Congratulations and a special thanks. Can’t wait to see what you accomplish at next year’s Jolly Jaunt Boston!

 

 

 

Special Olympics/ MASC Bocce is a Game Changer for High Schools

Unified Champion Schools logo red blackLast month, 18 Massachusetts Association of Student Councils (MASC) schools descended upon Westborough High School for the 5th annual Special Olympics Massachusetts Unified Bocce Tournament. This is the first of two Unified Bocce events happening this school year through the MASC. The second will take place at Rockland High School on Sunday, January 8. This tournament included 18 schools, 11 that played in the Bocce Tournament and 7 that came as fans in the stands to cheer on all the participants.  A Unified team is made up of high school students both with intellectual disabilities (athletes) and without intellectual disabilities (partners) working together. It was inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding. Below are a few words from those who took part in the tournament firsthand on how participating in this Unified event affected them.

A view from two Students

Willow Scappace, Greenfield High School
My trip with the Greenfield High School student council to the Special Olympics Unified bocce tournament was an experience in which I learned something about myself, others and had a really good time. My friend Jackson and I went towillowscappane bocce for the first time this year; however, unlike Jackson who was playing, I was a “Fan in the Stand” supporting our team from Greenfield High School. I was really nervous that day not knowing what to expect, but I ended up losing those nerves as I saw how everyone was treated with such respect.

Before the games started, I was able to watch my team practice. Being a “Fan in the Stand”, I could see firsthand people caring for one another and showing patience toward each other. It was great to see everyone being treated equally and respectfully. When I asked Jackson how it felt to play he told me: “It changed how I view others by showing me that everyone is capable of anything.”

I believe that being able to participate in Unified bocce allowed us to learn many things, and we brought our new-found knowledge back to our school. I now understand that I can help others who are not always treated as they should be. When Jackson and I were sharing our experiences, we both agreed that community events, like bocce, can change the way kids act in our school. “It can change our school by showing that all people are equal,” Jackson said after the games.

 

Aidan Rawson, Oxford High School
Events like the Special Olympics Massachusetts Unified Bocce Tournament are an excellent example of how important it is to continuously work on making our schools a safe and inclusive environment for ALL students. In a world divided by race, gender, sexuality, and religion, inclusion is often lost behind the hatred, pity, envy, and spite of some people. Our generation is responsible for changing this, and events like this have done an excellent job of jump-starting that change. Unified Sports, Best Buddies Chapters, aidan-docxGay-Straight Alliances, Cultural & Religious Clubs, and other inclusive environments within our schools inspire students like myself to make the world a more welcoming place.

Every person deserves to feel like they have a safe space to be their authentic self, and a group of people they can connect with. When I was a young middle schooler who had just recently come out, I knew the feeling of dis-clusion all too well. However, when I kicked off freshman year in high school,  I knew I wanted to make that change. My mission was to make my school a more inclusive and accepting place for everyone, regardless of what made us “different.” As a result, I immediately jumped into student leadership. Student Council and Best Buddies provided me with the opportunity to participate in events like the Bocce Tournament, along with a plethora of other opportunities to hone my leadership skills. I recall my first ever bocce tournament at Grafton High School like it was yesterday. That day changed my life, as I came to realize that something as simple as playing bocce reminds kids that they have friends they can rely on, a team they can be a part of, and fans to cheer them on. Sometimes we ALL need to be reminded of that. I am so thankful for the experiences and long-lasting memories that the bocce tournaments provided me and so many other kids with. The memories will live on as the fuel to the fire that is the #InclusionRevolution. .

 

I cannot imagine my life without Special Olympics

melissa-reillyMy name is Melissa Joy Reilly.

I have been with Special Olympics forever.

I am an athlete and a Global Messenger.

I have competed in swimming, cycling and skiing.

And, in January 2016 I joined the Special Olympics Massachusetts Board of Directors.

So you see Special Olympics is a big part of my life.

 

Becoming a Special Olympics Athlete

I was born with one extra chromosome. This condition is known as Down-syndrome. It means that I can do most things that other people can do except it takes me a little longer.

But the good thing is, it qualified me to become Special Olympics athlete. I cannot exactly remember when, but I will never forget my very first swimming practice. It was at the YMCA in a freezing pool!

We had a great team called the Dolphins. My coaches and a whole bunch of volunteers were amazing. They even organized team BBQs and pool parties and I made friends for life.

I have also competed in great cycling events. But my most wonderful experiences have been when I competed in alpine skiing for Team USA in Nagano, Japan in 2005 and in Pyeongchang, South Korea in 2013. The coaches and volunteers of the Nashoba Shooting Stars trained me so well that I was ready to compete against the world’s best ski racers in two World Winter Games and each time I won a silver medal in the slalom.

melissa-reilly-ski

Melissa represented Special Olympics USA at World Games in Japan & South Korea

I cannot imagine my life without Special Olympics. Because Special Olympics has improved my life and gave me courage to take regular education classes in school and prepared me to join my high school sports teams. I ran track and cross-country for all four years.

My education, graduating from Acton-Boxborough and from Middlesex Community College Transition Program prepared me for my “dream” job. I work at the State House in Boston as an office-aid for State Senator Jamie Eldridge. And I am also a classroom assistant for the Learning Program of Boston. It’s a pre-school for little kids with Down-syndrome.

Special Olympics Global Messenger

As a Global Messenger I make presentations to many different groups and organizations. I spread the word about how very important Special Olympics is for people with all different kinds of intellectual disabilities.

I have been a Keynote speaker on the East and West coast and in between. These are wonderful opportunities to “show and tell” the world that people with all different kinds of intellectual disabilities want to be included in life, and they are able and want to work. And just like everyone else we want to participate in sports and to have fun.

I tell them how Special Olympics is a big part of giving me courage and confidence.

Thank you volunteers. You are all amazing. We are the Special Olympics athletes and you are the SPECIAL people behind our success.

 

A million thanks to all the great volunteers.

Melissa

 

Three Fun Things to do in Massachusetts this Weekend

Jingle through the Streets for Special Olympics

dscn0444-xlToo much pie last weekend? Looking for a way to trim the waistline while supporting a great cause? Put your holiday hat and running shoes on and hit the streets of Boston, Peabody or Hyannis this weekend to support Special Olympics Massachusetts. Run with a friend or make a team and raise funds to support a Special Olympics athlete for an entire year of athletic programming! We’ll supply the t-shirt, jingle bells and festive atmosphere, and you’ll be raising money for athletes with intellectual disabilities. With three locations to choose from, you can run right in your own backyard.

Want to explore the streets of Boston? Then the 12th annual Boston Jolly Jaunt, presented by the New Balance Foundation is the run for you. Saturday, December 3rd runners and walkers will don their favorite holiday gear, lace up their running shoes and take off from the Boston Common. You’ll jingle all the way as you make your way through this flat 5k road race in Boston’s Back Bay.

If running in Boston on Saturday is not your thing, check out one of our other two road races on Sunday, December 4th – Hyannis Jolly Jaunt or Peabody Holiday Torch Run. At the Hyannis Jolly Jaunt you’ll be sprinting from the Cape Cod Resort and Conference Center through the streets of Hyannis on the professionally timed course.

What? You say the north shore is your stomping ground? Then hit the pavement at the Peabody Holiday Torch Run presented by our Law Enforcement Torch Run program – a year round fundraising and awareness program run by law enforcement officers from the around Massachusetts.

SIGN  ME  UP

Don’t forget to deck your halls with boughs of holly (put on your best festive gear) so you are entered to win one of the prizes for best costume! All courses are professionally timed and prizes will also be awarded to top male and female runners at each location.

Special Olympics Massachusetts provides year-round sports training, athletic competition and other health-related programming for athletes with intellectual disabilities throughout the state free of charge. There are Special Olympics events almost every day of the week and throughout the year. We can’t do it without your help. Raising $500 will support one athlete for one year of athletic training and competition. Any little bit helps. Sign up today to jingle through the streets!

“Thank you” will never be enough

Letter from a Special Olympics Massachusetts parent, Cara Schneider to Law Enforcement Torch Run (LETR) council member and Hampden County Coordinator, Jon Laporte about the impact LETR has had on her 11-year old son Ron Schneider.

Dear Law Enforcement Torch Run supporters,

My son, Ron has a therapeutic mentor that takes him out into the community for two hours a week to work on social skills and appropriate social interactions. Ron REALLY loved working with you and the other officers at Cop on Top, last December in Chicopee. What you, and the other participating officers, may not realize, is the positive impact you have on athletes that is truly life changing for them. Most kids (especially) with disabilities like Ron (Ron has Autism and PTSD) are easily scared by situations involving police and emergency personnel. All too often, these kids will resort to reflexes which include fight or flight. Flight being the most terrifying as the parent of a child that oft does this. My son has ZERO safety awareness in a stressful (to him) situation and fleeing into a parking lot or busy street is a very likely (albeit terrifying) result of his escalated anxiety. No matter how often we practice safety, stress and anxiety trump any pre-taught lessons and we, as caregivers are solely at the mercy of his mind to process that information… it’s often not what we hope for despite repeated trainings.

Back to his mentor… She was pulled over on the highway for a light on her vehicle that was out. Ron was in the back seat. She was terrified that the approaching officer would evoke a less than desirable action from Ron. The highway itself being the most scary scenario… Ron sat quietly while the state trooper came and went from her window. While waiting, she asked Ron if he was ok and if he understood why she was stopped.

His words have us, to this day, astounded and so grateful for all of the work that you and every officer does every day. The work that you do with LETR to support Special. Olympics is something that there are not enough thank yous for.

Ron’s response to his mentor: “The officer stopped you to keep you safe. Your light is out and you might not know and it might cause an accident for you. He’s helping you. Officers help all of us every day. They help me for Special Olympics and they help me know that if I am ever unsafe, they will help me. They helped me when all of them were at Walmart “On Top”. They are helpers. We shouldn’t ever be afraid or run from them. They’re the good guys.”

Jon, thank you for being one of the “good guys” And please pass this on to all the “good guys” that you work alongside.

Sincerely,

The mom of a little boy that has lots of reasons to be scared, but because of the actions of LETR officers, he can see that you ARE the helpers.

Thank you will never be enough…

More information on “Cop on Top” can be found at specialolympicsma.org/letr. Pittsfield: 12/3 & 12/4 and Chicopee: 12/4

Amazed & Humbled: A Mother’s Fundraising Story

By: Kate Dyer

Kate with her son & daughter.

Kate with her son and daughter.

In July, my 12 year old daughter Sariah and I decided to participate in Over the Edge for Special Olympics. Initially I was rather apprehensive about the event. Not because Sariah and I would be rappelling off the roof of a 22-story building in Boston. Although my husband and son were not exactly excited about the idea. But rather, because I have always been intimidated by fundraising.

Special Olympics has been important to me for most of my adult life. It offers so much to everyone involved. The Special Olympics athletes get to experience some independence and build their own confidence. They develop new friendships and become reacquainted with ones of old. And, most importantly, the experience gives them a sense of accomplishment, and safe place to feel a part of something much bigger than themselves. Coaches gain an appreciation for each of their athlete’s struggles, learn the importance of patience and build their own organizational skills by leading a team with athletes of many differing abilities. Unified Partners develop more physical fitness, feel the joy of watching athletes experience success, and become involved in an important part of their community. Parents of children involved in Special Olympics suddenly have a full network of likeminded and challenged families within a compassionate and dedicated organization that fits their child’s needs. And the unimaginable joy that comes with watching their child celebrate with their teammates after scoring a goal or basket.

In order for all of this to happen it is important for families to be involved in the fundraising process. Sariah and I used email and Facebook to reach out to family and friends. We sold candy door-to-door and at various events. We hosted a yard sale and were able to get many items donated. And Sariah donated half of her babysitting earnings to raise funds to go Over the Edge. I was amazed and humbled by all the support we received. It was not nearly as difficult as I thought it would be and I found when reaching out to friends and family, they were more than willing to support a cause that was so important to our family.

Fundraising for Special Olympics Over the Edge 2016

Kate & Sariah at the 2016 Over the Edge fundraising event

Once we finished collecting the donations, we then had to prepare for the actual Over the Edge experience. We bought matching outfits and decorated our shirts with the names of our athletes and unified partners on the back.

We had gorgeous weather on the day of the event! After checking in we headed up to the roof to prepare for the experience. After putting on the harness, we went through two practice sessions in a small secured area. But now it was time for the real thing. Stepping off the hotel roof edge was both exhilarating and terrifying. The view of Boston while rappelling down the side of the hotel was breathtaking. We were able to see Boston from a vantage that few people get to experience. In addition to the altitude-induced adrenaline was the overwhelming support we received by the friends and family members that came to support us. They stood at the bottom, held signs and cheered for us as we rappelled down the hotel.

Going Over the Edge with Sariah was an amazing mother/daughter moment that I will treasure forever. I was so proud of her. Although nervous, she persevered and the two of us repelled side-by-side. And to add to the experience, Sariah was very excited to learn that she now holds the record for youngest participant to go Over the Edge.

Without fundraising, Special Olympics would not be as successful as it is and we would not have the memorable experiences that we do each season. Going Over the Edge for Special Olympics was an opportunity to fundraise for an organization that our family is passionate about and have an experience of a lifetime.