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Volunteering for the Special Olympics

Spending a weekend working with the Special Olympics offered an interesting chance to help some amazing kids and learn a great deal about them and about myself. I wanted to share with you some of these personal reflections as well as some of my experiences at the Games. When Courtney Newman, Section I’s lovely Philanthropy Chair, told me about the event and the opportunity to get involved I was hesitant; and not only because of the 7 AM start on Saturday and Sunday.

As many of you know, I have done a good deal of charity work in my time before and during HBS. However, I have never really done an event for the mentally or physically handicapped. Many believe that what motivates charity work is a fundamental belief in one’s ability to affect change. We hope to make people’s lives better through our time, our touch, our words, or at the minimum our money. When you mentor a child who has no stable father figure, you can help correct the root cause of trouble in that child’s life. But how can one help fight the root cause of a mental or physical handicap? With these thought weighing on mind I never reacted well at volunteer events for the handicap. I hoped that I was able to overcome my fear for the Special Olympics.

My first interaction did not go well. We were lining up the athletes to march into the opening ceremonies. I was assigned to the team from the Boston Public Schools, a diverse group who played and behaved just as you would expect any group of school kids to. As we were lining everyone up for the ceremony, I felt a tap at my back. I spun around and saw a little girl; she must have been five years old. She looked up at me with a quizzical look upon her face. I knelt down and asked, “What can I do for you sweetheart?” She responded with her best effort at speech, but I could not understand. I put my hands on her shoulders and she spoke again. Again, I could not understand her question; her speech was to slurred. I kept saying, “I don’t understand, I don’t understand.” She spread her arms from head to toe, and repeated her phrase. I felt so powerless. Then a woman who had been standing nearby approached; it was her mother. She flashed a pained smiled at me, and said, “She just wants a hug.” I hugged her and fought back the tears-and the urge to run away.

The rest of the games were less dramatic for me personally, but
much more so for the athletes. I spent all of my time with the Boston Public School Team, even though on Saturday and Sunday I was assigned to Track & Field. (sorry again to my T&F teammates Courtney, Lindsay, Australian dude and his wife, Wee Ping and Heba!). I watch the BPS kids play in the Olympic village, and compete in the various events; but it was back on the track that two more events that I would like to share occurred. Two of the more severally handicap members of the BPS team were in separate heats in the 100M race, Kendrick and Reba.

Kendrick is one of the more outgoing of the BPS kids, always grabbing my hand and pulling me along when I could not keep up. His speech, while severely impaired, was easily decipherable after spending some time with him. As the gun went off in his race, Kendrick put his head down and ran. His three classmates in the heat, who again bore no noticeable handicap, finished the race quickly, earning themselves medals. As Kendrick finished the race, our last of the day, it struck me the he would getting no medal this day. I thought he might get sad, upset even. I had seen kids all day be upset with losses in a competition, but eventually win a medal in another event. This was the last event though; there would be no medal for Kendrick. How would he react? If memory serves his reaction upon crossing the line into my waiting high five was, “Did you see Jeff, I ran the whole way, I finished, I finished. We won, we won.”

The last heat was for the girls of BPS. Again four spots, and again someone with no medal yet this day. Reba though was not like Kendrick. Reba was very shy. Even though she we had spent a lot of time together over the last two days, I still had yet hear her say a word. Again, the gun goes off. I hoped her classmates would throw the race so that Reba could win a medal, but that is not the spirit of these Olympics. The other three finished before Reba had gone 50 meters. She was wavering. The crowd, as they always did, rallied for the lone athlete left on the field. Their cheering just scared her. She slowed down even more. The BPS teachers were running along side the track, trying to motivate her. She was scared. Then I did something I would not have, could not have, done two days before. I knelt at the finish line, held my arms out wide and called for her. She saw me and became a little more at ease. She ran. She finished. She won. As I picked Reba up and swung her about, I realized what these games were about too, not just for the athletes, but for the volunteers as well.

Next time the Special Olympics comes to your town, volunteer. I think you may learn more then you expect. I certainly did.

July 2, 2001
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