Happy New Year, everyone! Can you believe it is 2023?! It’s so hard to imagine that four years in my role as an SSIGM have already gone by. I can honestly say these years have certainly been filled with adventure and the unexpected.
2019 began with me learning my role in the #InclusionRevolution as a Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger, SSIGM for short, as I attended the 2019 World Games in Abu Dhabi. This is where we, the athletes, were called “The Determined.” Determined? I had never been called determined before. I had been called slow, retarded, and stupid, but never determined. Here we all were, from around the entire world, gathered as one, for sports and we were called The Determined. This broke my heart with a kind of joy I had never had. I learned to “#meetthedetermined” on my social media and I could not wait to share the message of inclusion with anyone who would listen. The opportunity to do just that came soon after when the Bank of America invited me to speak in Boston and arranged for me to sing the National Anthem at Fenway Park for the Boston Red Sox. Here I was, down on the field, being determined & showing what inclusion can do, if you are only given the chance.
I was looking forward to breezing into 2020 with hopes and dreams of another year to spread the message of inclusion. But in 2020 we were all confronted with something that would change our lives, something called COVID-19. Oh boy that was tough. COVID taught us about social distancing, wearing masks and staying at home, but it also led me to a new place called Zoom. With Zoom I learned about a new world and that world connected me farther than I’ve ever been connected before. I joined in Special Olympics Zoom dances, virtual competitions, mindfulness sessions and speaking engagements with my fellow athletes from the US, Canada, and the Caribbean. I learned new ways to keep the message of inclusion alive by attending international conferences and speaking on the Special Chronicles podcast about the very real health needs that persons with intellectual disabilities face every day, but especially during COVID. I was in a world I had never been in before, hoping that the messages I was sending were like beacons of light to others, as the COVID darkness tried to cover us.
Before I knew it, we cautiously crept into 2021. In Hawaii, many COVID restrictions continued and the need to travel along the Zoom highway was our only way “off island,” as we say. I seized every opportunity that this new virtual world afforded me to spread awareness about Special Olympics and the athletes that Special Olympics supports because I wanted to stay connected and hopefully be effective. What I didn’t know was that another life change was coming my way. Unlike COVID, this was one I could get excited about. In June, my family & I took the big leap of faith to begin our future in another new world called The Mainland. A hui hou Hawaii, Aloha Texas. Before I even had time to miss my island life, Special Olympics Texas welcomed me with open arms, and Special Olympics, Inc. offered me the opportunity to be a consultant with the Organizational Excellence and Health teams at Special Olympics, Inc.
Honestly, I sailed faster than I could have imagined straight into 2022 where I co-led a fabulous new training program called Unified Leadership and I worked with the inclusive health team via Zoom, Teams, and many other internet platforms I’d never heard of. In my role with Unified Leadership, I was able to shed light on what it is like to be an individual with intellectual disabilities that has struggled in the workplace and shared the importance of having athletes as leaders. At the same time, as a Health Team member, I gave input about the Health Messenger program and spoke to outside organizations about the struggles I have faced being an individual with an ‘invisible disability.’ 2022 continued to be a breath of fresh air as Special Olympics athletes gathered, in person, for the first time since 2019, at the USA Games in Orlando, FL. As I watched all the athletes coming into the stadium for the Opening Ceremony, I could feel our light shining out to all the world, as if to say: Together, We Shine as One! While I was there, I knew that with each presentation I gave and with each tournament the athletes participated in, we were examples to the world of the possibility of living unified.
But 2022 didn’t stop there. Nope. The 2022 Law Enforcement Torch Run International Conference was held in Texas and as a Special Olympics Texas athlete leader, I was invited to share my personal story of how Special Olympics has changed my life. I also had the opportunity to demonstrate Unified Leadership by co-leading a session on the Unified Leadership approach with fellow athlete leader Bruce Clark and Special Olympics staff members Brandon Schatsiek and Jereme Ballinger, as well as co-leading sessions on Introduction to Law Enforcement Servicing Those with Autism Spectrum Disorder, with retired police officer Stan Campbell. Boy what a year, but it was not over yet! I would wrap up 2022 spreading the message of the importance of Inclusion by doing a social media tour with Champion Ambassador Miss America Emma Broyles herself! I hope that the audiences we reached will take the importance of working toward an inclusive world to heart and come out to see what Special Olympics is all about.
So, here we are and 2023 has just begun. I have been trying to think of what message I would like to share with you as I enter my final year as an SSIGM. But what should I say? What message do I want to share? Those are the questions that have been going through my mind since I started writing this blog. Honestly, this is a tough decision to make. There are so many things that I want to say that it is hard to put them together into one thought, but I will do my best. I think that if there is one thing that I hope to continue to do as an SSIGM, it would be to spread the message of inclusion by sharing my story and my journey in Special Olympics with as many people as I can. Every time I get the opportunity to share how Special Olympics has taken me from the sidelines of life and put me on the playing field, I feel like I am making a difference, not just in my life but in the lives of all of us with intellectual disabilities in 2 ways: 1) I want everyone who has ever felt small and unwanted, like I once felt, to know that they have a place and a purpose in this world. It might take a while to find it, but it is out there. You just must keep running the race and not lose faith and 2) I always hope that my story will inspire change in how others see people with intellectual disabilities. I hope they will see the ability and not the disability. That is the change we are striving for in our Inclusion Revolution.
Maybe I will get to do this by giving a speech at the 2023 World Games in Berlin this summer or by giving an Inclusive Health presentation via Zoom to Special Olympics partners around the world or within my role as an Athlete Leader for Special Olympics Texas by singing at the next Breakfast for Champions. There are so many avenues that are out there to demonstrate inclusion that it is hard to focus on just one. Who knows, maybe I will get to do all three!
All I know is that this is the beginning of another great adventure to stand for what I believe in by Going all Inclusive during 2023!