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Special Olympics Athlete Turns Passion for Politics into Career

Melissa on stage with a medal draped around her neck speaking at SOMA's 50th Anniversary in 2018.

Melissa Reilly has never let her disability determine what she can and cannot do. Born with Down syndrome, Reilly defies stereotypes every day through sport, leadership and employment, exemplifying the value people with intellectual disabilities bring to all facets of life. She's made it a priority to advocate for those with disabilities. And one of the ways she does that is through her career working with Massachusetts State Senator Jaime Eldridge. But much of her impact would not have been possible without Special Olympics.

Starting to compete at just eight years old with Special Olympics Massachusetts, Reilly has always had a knack for competition, participating in swimming, cycling and skiing over the past 26 years. She also had the honor of representing her country at two Special Olympics World Winter Games.

"The first one I did [World Winter Games] was in Nagano, Japan in 2005 and my second one was in PyeongChang in South Korea in 2013," Reilly said about her international competitions. “Competing in alpine skiing internationally,” she said, "the snow was great and all the people there were awesome."

Melissa with SO USA Alpine Ski team PyeongChang.
Melissa Reilly poses with members of Special Olympics USA during the PyeongChang World Winter Games in 2013.

In addition to her long list of athletic accomplishments, Reilly is a leader for Special Olympics Massachusetts as a Global Messenger, and as a member of the Board of Directors.

"I feel really honored to help the athletes and the Board," Reilly said. "We give suggestions on how to run the Special Olympics Program."

To acknowledge Reilly’s athletic and leadership accomplishments, Special Olympics Massachusetts inducted her into the Special Olympics Massachusetts Hall of Fame in 2010.

Image of Melissa on the left with her hand being held up in victory. image of Melissa on the right of Melissa with a silver medal and holding her snowboard.

But Reilly’s impact goes beyond the world of Special Olympics.

Reilly advocates for a more inclusive world for people with intellectual disabilities. Through public speaking, she shares her story and why it's essential to include everyone in all aspects of society. She's received numerous awards, she’s been featured in magazines and newspapers, and she’s been interviewed on TV and radio.

Pre-pandemic, Reilly would do anywhere from 10 to 20 presentations per year. She has been the keynote speaker at many large events for organizations across the country. She presented at the Special Olympics Massachusetts 50th Celebration in 2018. Since the pandemic began, she has spoken to medical students at Harvard Medical School by Zoom. She is scheduled to speak at Brandeis University this month and at Boston University Medical School in January, and the list goes on. But she never forgets her roots.

Champions for 50 - Melissa Reilly
"In every presentation Melissa makes, she talks about how important Special Olympics is to her life and the life of people with disabilities. Special Olympics prepares athletes for sports and for life in the working world. It makes a real change."
David Reilly, Melissa Reilly's father

Reilly knows a way she can pay it forward and make real change for others is through her work in politics. She has always had a passion for it, crediting her sister who worked in New York for the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. And like her, Reilly wanted to work at the U.N. That's when she decided to pursue opportunities in local politics. She contacted Senator Eldridge and asked if she could intern for him at the statehouse in Boston. Through her training in Business and Office Support at the Middlesex Community College Transition Program, having graduated in 2010, she was on her way to the statehouse.

Melissa Reilly - Sen. Eldridge's Star Employee

“To think of someone who’s just been in this office for a year and a half, to have that direct impact, is very impressive,” Senator Eldridge said about Reilly in a 2015 video produced by the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress. “And [it] just speaks to Melissa’s values, her influence, and her willingness to help everyone.”

Melissa Reilly poses with Massachusetts State Senator Jamie Eldridge.
Melissa Reilly poses with Massachusetts State Senator Jamie Eldridge.

A highlight of Reilly’s tenure with Senator Eldridge includes being present at Fenway Park for Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s signing of the Real Lives Bill in 2014, a bill which enables people with intellectual disabilities to make decisions that are central to how they live their lives. Part of the work she is presently involved with is a bill to remove the "R" word from all state documents in Massachusetts.

Reilly is also a member of the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress (MDSC), and part of their Self-Advocates Advisory Council (SAAC).

"We give ideas and suggestions to the members in the Congress about events," Reilly said about her role. "And there are several advocates who have Down syndrome."

Melissa Reilly and her parents standing with current Governor Charlie Baker.
Melissa Reilly and her parents standing with current Governor Charlie Baker.

Prior to March, Reilly would start her day with a walk on the treadmill, breakfast and a ride to the train station from her dad. She'd then make her way to the statehouse. She says, "I really love working for Senator Eldridge." What started as an internship in 2013 has turned into a job where she answers the phone, files paperwork, attends events and takes photos. She's climbed the ladder, the same ladder anyone else would have to climb, and is being rewarded for her hard work. Though, since COVID-19 rattled everyday life, she's had to adjust.

"Every Monday, we have a conference call," Reilly said. "It's been challenging." For now, the plan is to continue adjusting and learn as they go. Reilly is hopeful they might be able to go back to the office at the end of the year. Despite being unable to be together physically at the statehouse, Reilly says, “sometimes we have a staff day out in the district.” She joined the rest of Senator Eldridge’s staff in a fall team-bonding activity going apple picking.

Melissa and the staff of Senator Eldridge spent the day apple picking as a team-bonding activity.
Melissa and the staff of Senator Eldridge spent the day apple picking as a team-bonding activity.

Reilly looks forward to going back to work. But in the meantime, she plays the piano and reads books. Her favorite is one on Anne Frank. She has five nephews and one niece that she loves to talk about. And although Reilly has plenty to keep her busy, she really can’t wait to rejoin her Special Olympics family soon.

"Melissa often says she wouldn't know what to do without Special Olympics. Special Olympics really is her life, and Mrs. [Eunice Kennedy] Shriver is Melissa’s inspiration," Annelies Reilly, Melissa's mom, said. "She impacted the whole world. In a very good way."

For Reilly, Special Olympics isn't just an organization where she plays sports. It's much more than that. Because of the opportunities given to her, she lives a more independent life. She uses what she’s learned as an athlete, Global Messenger and board member to impact the world by changing the way people think about individuals with disabilities. She's breaking stereotypes. And for that, she's left a lasting impact. Being involved in politics doesn't just affect her personally, nor her fellow athletes that she’s advocating on behalf. Instead, it impacts a whole community and promotes an all-inclusive future where no one will be left out.

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