KM and I made the trip this weekend up to State College, PA, to see her sister play and her parents coach at the Pennsylvania Special Olympics State Games. KM's an old pro at these events, but I was a first timer for something of this size and caliber. I've volunteered at a basketball event before and a few weekly bowling practices, but I've never before had the privelage of being surrounded by so many amazing athletes and volunteers. The atmosphere, the competition, the sportsmanship, and so many other aspects just blew me away.
KM's little sister, CM, is the catcher for our hometown's softball team (her Dad's the coach), and when we arrived just after the start of the first game, CM and the team were excited to see us. Most of the athletes already new KM and a few recognized me, but we both got a warm welcome even though they were in the heat of competition with the team recognized as one of the best in the state. CM's team, unfortunately, lost this game, but they'd won two on Friday. Their 2-2 record was enough to get them the Silver Medal this year, but this weekend wasn't just about winning.
I work in a strange amorphous area between the for-profit and non-profit sectors, so I spend a good portion of my day dealing with and thinking about charitable organizations. I'd come to believe that the gifts that do the greatest good are the gifts that produce tangible benefit for the greatest number of individuals in need, but after this weekend's experiences I have a newfound appreciation for the amazing work that organizations can do in making what look to be small differences in a few people's lives. Special Olympics is one of these organizations. They don't build homes, help disaster victims, or feed the hungry, but they make a significant and incredible contribution to the wellbeing of both the individuals who get a chance to compete and the coaches and families who are priveleged to be a part of the experience.
Special Olympics athletes get more out of competing (on a team or as individuals) than just the thrill of a victory. These athletes get to be a part of something in a way that they don't normally get to experience. They are the in-crowd for a few days, the centers of attention in a very meaningful way. Coaches and families witness a personality change when these athletes take the field. They become competitive, but at the same time they look out for one another and pick eachother up. They cheer on their teammates and they cheer on those with whom they're competing - even if it means a run is going to be scored against them. Some of them take leadership roles: they keep up team morale, help coaches keep the team organized, pick up teammates after a tough play and congratulate them after a great one. These athletes don't have this opportunity anywhere else in their lives, and the responsibility that comes with being a leader shows through in their held-high heads and light-up the room smiles. They thrive - like so many of us do - on being the go-to-person.
Not everyone's a leader, though. Those that aren't still support their teammates and fellow competitors and play just as hard. We saw a few homeruns and some great catches made that become the talk of the rest of the afternoon - proud smiles and high fives all around. These athletes gain self-esteem, learn to cope with losses and be humble in victory, learn to be good sports and work their hardest for the win and for eachother. These are life lessons that many of us who have played a sport take for granted, but lessons many of these amazing athletes never had the chance to learn. Special Olympics gives them that.
Beyond the field of competition, there's also an incredible comradery that arises among these athletes. Most of them compete year after year and shouted "Hello"s and big hugs abound around the Olympic Village. Some incredible benefactors provide all sorts of games, prizes, and free food and drinks for the athletes as they hang out and spend time with their friends. There was even a dunking booth and karaoke - there was no shyness here as some of the athletes belted out their favorite 80s rock tunes.
All in all, I'm so glad that KM and I were able to make the trip. CM and her teammates appreciated having us there, but I also gained a new appreciation and respect for the organization, the hundreds of volunteers and coaches, and the many benefactors who make this type of event a possibility. No, they're not building houses or handing out food, but they're building self-esteem, strengthening personalities, providing an athletic outlet, and providing an incredible form of positive feedback for individuals who wouldn't ordinarily have this opportunity. The Special Olympics is an amazing organization.