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Special Olympics

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"Let me win. But if I cannot win,
let me be brave in the attempt."
-- Special Olympics Oath

Christina Campbell has performed dance routines before hundreds of spectators. She has spoken to an audience of 2,000 people. And in 2010, at age 19, she traveled to China to compete at the Special Olympics. She came home with four silver medals and a gold.

It's hard to believe that Campbell used to be quiet, timid and withdrawn. An intellectual disability made learning difficult for her. But then the Special Olympics changed her life.

"When I was younger in high school, I used to get teased a lot," says Campbell in a speech. "I always got chosen last to be a partner in class activities, and I didn't have a lot of close friends. All of this left me feeling sad and not included....

"Because of my involvement in Special Olympics, I learned that I could be successful. Special Olympics gave me confidence to be proud of myself.... I took what I learned in Special Olympics to high school and became the best I could be."

The Special Olympics is a nonprofit organization, operating in 170 countries. It offers training and sporting competitions for 4.5 million children and adults with intellectual disabilities. It encourages physical fitness and promotes self-confidence. And it relies on thousands of volunteers to make it happen.

"We couldn't run without volunteers," says Nicole Aspinall. She works for a Special Olympics chapter. "If we don't have volunteers, we can't run events.... If we didn't have volunteers that were coming to coach, none of those kids would be able to play."

Volunteers coach the sports teams, including floor hockey, snowshoeing, curling, speed skating, bowling, soccer, softball and more.

Volunteers also help out at events. "Runners" as young as 10 sprint back and forth between the race tracks and registration, handing in race times. Teen volunteers escort athletes to various sporting events. Many athletes participate in more than one sport. The volunteers ensure that the athletes get to their assigned lanes. They also help carry awards to the podium.

"It's not unusual to see high school kids doing this on their own," says Maggie Dittburner. She manages sports training at Special Olympics Illinois. At some events, she says about a third of the volunteers are under the age of 18.

Often, teens get involved through a school or church group. Other times, events are held at high schools.

"We thank (our volunteers) for coming out and volunteering. And they're like, 'Oh no, I got more back out of it than I gave,'" says Dittburner. "There's a lot of satisfaction in watching someone's accomplishments and just being there to support their efforts."

Kathy Campbell devotes a good chunk of her life to the Special Olympics. A teacher by day, she spends her free time volunteering with seven young girls. Most of them have Down's syndrome.

Campbell is assistant coach and manager for a rhythmic dance team. She helps the girls on their dance routines. She also handles the team's paperwork. She started volunteering after seeing what the Special Olympics did for her daughter Christina.

"It's like teaching," says Campbell. "I can see the benefit that it's offering the kids that I'm working with. I know that they wouldn't get it if I didn't volunteer....

"I see these kids and they're blossoming and they're reaching their potential and they're successful. That's why I do it."

Every year, a college in Massachusetts hosts a swimming competition for Special Olympic athletes. And every year, for the past five years, Andrea Conte has volunteered to help run the event.

"It's only a couple hours out of your life, and it's a very rewarding day," she says. "It's a very fun event." Conte prepares lists and calls out names to make sure the athletes are present. She then organizes the swimmers into teams.

She started volunteering because her older sister was a Special Olympic athlete. Now 22, Conte studies special education at college. Her volunteer work influenced her school major and her career ambitions.

After college, she plans to work with people with autism. Autism is an intellectual disability. She'd also like to coach a Special Olympics basketball team.

Nearly every day for six months, Paul Bishop tied up his running shoes and hit the walking track with Adam. They walked three miles a day through a city park in Alabama, during the hottest part of the afternoon.

Adam is a Special Olympic athlete. He was training for a walking race at the national summer games. Bishop, a volunteer, was there to coach him.

"It's just exciting to see the athletes participate, to see them compete, to see them have an opportunity to compete," says Bishop. "And it doesn't matter if they win or not, as long as they finish the race. And when they cross that finish line, and they're finishing in fourth or fifth, they're still wanting a high five."

Bishop is an area director for the Special Olympics in Alabama. He plans and organizes area events, and trains volunteers. He also works to expand the sporting events so that more athletes can get involved.

When Bishop started volunteering 21 years ago, track and field was the only sporting event offered in the area. Today, sporting events include golf, bowling, gymnastics, bocce ball, power lifting and swimming.

Bishop also works for an association that helps people with intellectual disabilities. He started the job shortly after volunteering for the Special Olympics.

"Sometimes I guess we feel like we have a calling, that there's something we're supposed to do with our lives," says Bishop. "I guess this is what I felt like I was supposed to do with my life."

How to Get Involved

Each state has its own Special Olympics chapter. Check out your state's website for volunteer opportunities and contact the volunteer coordinator.


Special Olympics International


Special Olympics History
Find out how it all began

Special Olympics Massachusetts
Learn more about the Massachusetts chapter

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