"Before becoming an SSIGM, I didn't have anyone to be my mentor. During the application process, I was at a loss for who could be my mentor. Chris [Winston] was the first and only person I thought of."
The 10 Sargent Shriver International Global Messengers (SSIGM) gathered in a Ritz-Carlton Grand Canal Hotel during the 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. They ate pizza, reminiscing on the past several days as their historic trip to the Middle East was near to an end. Each, from separate parts of the world, had one thing in common--their mentors surrounded them, making each feel included. A feeling they had all long-awaited.
Daniel Smrokowski, who is an athlete and SSIGM from Special Olympics Illinois, recalled that scene. An excellent pizza party it was, he said, "normally, we wouldn't be having a pizza party in a villa." But because a presidential guest booked their first room, it created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to as he said, "live the villa life." Smrokowski, never having a mentor growing up, has participated in several sports, graduated with a journalism degree from Roosevelt University and hosts his own Special Chronicles podcast, which features the talents of people with intellectual disabilities (ID).
"Her example has been the inspiration for many since 1968. I have been fortunate enough to know another champion equally as determined. Like Eunice, she is determined to show the world we are just like everyone else. She is not one to take no for an answer but instead accepts the challenge as an invitation for change."
Since then, Winston has acted as Smrokowski's cameraman for The Abu Dhabi Daily Show and has helped him become a published author in a major market newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, among other opportunities. "Chris has time and again gone out of his way to be my champion and to care for me like a family member would—a big brother or a father would," Smrokowski said about their relationship. Read Daniel Smrokowski's full tribute to his mentor, Chris Winston.
Renee Manfredi is another SSIGM and Special Olympics Hawaii athlete leader. She, too, experienced the same feeling Smrokowski did without a mentor. In her own words, "my years in school were always scary, overwhelming and pretty lonely." While she was expected to keep up with everyone else, she couldn't and was pushed to the back no matter how hard she fought for inclusion.
Manfredi credited Eunice Kennedy Shriver as the first Champion of Inclusion. Kennedy Shriver spoke up for what she believed in and was determined to make everyone feel included. She has since inspired countless people to transform the lives of people with and without ID through the power of sport.
Nip Ho is the Senior Vice President of Programs for Special Olympics Hawaii. "In 2009, she asked me a question that would change my life, not only as an athlete, but the direction my life was going," Manfredi said. "She invited me to join the Special Olympics Hawaii Toastmasters club." Not knowing what Toastmasters was, she asked, "would I still be an athlete?" "of course," Ho said.
That conversation created endless opportunities to empower Manfredi and have her voice heard through public speaking. It changed her life. Now, she's doing more than she ever imagined. Read Renee Manfredi's blog post about the impact her mentor, Nip Ho, has made on her life.
Hanna Joy Atkinson, an SSIGM from Special Olympics Colorado, has had to fight multiple obstacles throughout her life. In 24 years, she has fought and beat leukemia, has graduated high school, gave her high school graduation speech and received a scholarship from the John Lynch Foundation as the "Exceptional Star of the Year." She also serves as a reporter for the digital platform Channel Kindness, part of Lady Gaga's Born This Way Foundation.
"Stephanie supports me in my life by truly listening, guiding me to opportunities, helping me to follow my passions and supporting me to seek out my improvement of growth."
Stephanie Levine helps her not only navigate her many opportunities but provides crucial mentorship along the way.
They teach each other throughout their journey, learn from each other and accept each other's loud personalities and imperfections.
Each SSIGM with a different background and a different story, they still intertwine. The common thread? They all expressed how vital their mentors are to their success. Mentors help them promote the message of inclusion and strive for a better world.
Special Olympics' 2020 Mission Moment 2 of The Revolution is Inclusion campaign - Celebrating Champions of Inclusion. During the Global Week of Inclusion, Special Olympics honors those with and without ID who exemplify what being a Champion of Inclusion means.
And like Manfredi said, "I wouldn't be who I am today without Nip Ho."