Three times a week, the Special Olympics Alaska headquarters is transformed into a homemade studio, resembling the closest thing to what a television personality would use. Ayesha Abdul-Jillil sits behind a red tablecloth-draped table with the Special Olympics logo across the front. With video monitors and recording devices all around her, Abdul-Jillil gets ready to host her "Afternoons with Ayesha" segment, helping athletes stay fit and connected virtually.
At first glance, Abdul-Jillil may be seen as a quiet soul, but when she begins talking in a soft tone, you can sense happiness. It’s clear that Special Olympics has had a positive impact on her, and it’s allowed her to grow to new heights in her life, including traveling the world, leading her fellow athletes, and finding meaningful employment. But without the introduction to Special Olympics Alaska, that might have not been the case.
“I got started with Special Olympics back in 2001, a part of our school program here in Alaska,” Abdul-Jillil says about her introduction to the movement. “The Partners Club puts people with and without intellectual disabilities together to do activities after school.”
She has competed for over two decades and says her favorite sports are bowling and athletics, but that her favorite moment was traveling to Dubai for the 2019 Special Olympics World Games. Competing in athletics, Abdul-Jillil won a gold medal in the shot put, scoring a 6.92. She also brought home a silver medal for the 4X100 relay and a bronze medal in the 100M.
“Meeting different athletes from across the world was my favorite part,” she says. “They are really nice over there.” Being from Alaska where it is cold and dark for most of the year, Abdul-Jillil says the weather and the traditions were a real “culture shock.”
“It was really hot over there,” she says, explaining that when they went over in March it was about 70°, compared to between 31°F and 40°F back home!
When she isn’t competing, she is an office assistant at the Special Olympics Alaska headquarters, a job she took without hesitation in 2006 and has found joy in ever since.
"Every morning when I come in, the first thing I do is check my email and then check with each staff member to see if they need any help on any task," she says, explaining what a typical day looks like. "I love being around my coworkers and greeting people that come into the facility."
Abdul-Jillil clearly loves what she does and is appreciative of the opportunity to work for the organization. Jake Mendenhall, the Fundraising Events Manager for Special Olympics Alaska, says that’s apparent each day she comes into work. “Ayesha always brings a light and happy attitude to work,” he says. “She is always cheerful and willing to help on any project we are working on. This attitude brings a fun atmosphere to the office and all of the employees know that if you’re interacting with Ayesha then you’re going to be having a great day.”
But during the pandemic, things got slow. In-person competition stopped, and fewer people were coming into the office. A new experience for everybody, Abdul-Jillil quickly realized she wanted things to go back to how they were.
"I like working in the office," she says with a bit of laughter echoing from her voice as she talks about remote work. But she, like so many Special Olympics athletes around the world, found a way to make the best of a tough situation and find connection virtually.
To stay active amid the pandemic, Abdul-Jillil and the Special Olympics Alaska staff came up with the idea of “Afternoons with Ayesha.”
The series was not the first time Abdul-Jillil’s commitment to fitness and comfort in front of the camera was on display. As a trained Health Messenger, she often uploaded videos to Facebook providing health and exercise tips. Standing in her living room and wearing Special Olympics Alaska apparel, she demonstrated exercises and counted out loud for those watching, always adding in a reminder to drink water.
In the lead up to the 2019 Special Olympics Alaska Polar Bear Plunge, Abdul-Jillil shared tips and exercises to help plungers better prepare for the freezing water.
In addition, she has been a consistent participant in two SONA Move Challenges, an 8-week movement challenge to see how many minutes of exercise participants can complete each week. She recognizes the importance of staying active saying, "making sure I'm getting something active in everyday is good." She continues to encourage other athletes to “keep doing their outdoor activities, or going for a walk every day," but jokingly says, "I don't normally do my walks outdoors in the winter because it gets so cold and there's snow."
Along with being a Health Messenger, Abdul-Jillil’s leadership skills were showcased when she participated in Capitol Hill Day in 2019, where she encouraged members of Congress to support Special Olympics inclusive health initiatives.
Her impact has been recognized on some of the organization’s biggest stages. She was named the 2019 Special Olympics Alaska Athlete of the Year and delivered the Special Olympics athlete oath at the Opening Ceremony of the 2018 USA Games in Seattle.
But Abdul-Jillil remains focused on what matters the most: leading her fellow athletes and inspiring them to seek leadership roles of their own.
“Many athletes come in and volunteer their time throughout the year for various things and Ayesha helps teach them various office functions and I think this helps them see that they could do it too,” Mendenhall adds about the impact Abdul-Jillil has on her fellow athletes.
Everything leading up to this point in Abdul-Jillil’s life has prepared her to be a leader and has allowed her to showcase those skills in front of the camera. She thrives when the red light is flashing and like any television personality, she makes an impact with the message she delivers that day, thanks in large part to her healthy mindset and a little bit of charm.