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Renee Manfredi and National Disability Employment Awareness Month

For National Disability Employment Awareness Month (October), I wanted to share about the BEST resource around: Special Olympics.

I was recently asked, “Where could I go to learn skills that would help me to get a job?”

I didn’t even skip a beat, and I said, “the best place to go would be to join Special Olympics.”

Many people think that Special Olympics is just a sports organization, but I want to share with you about the leadership skills I have gained from being involved in sports. Sadly, these are skills I missed out on because I never got to really participate in sports, due to my disability.

You see, most of my world in school had been focused on what I couldn’t do, or how I needed to be faster and keep up with everyone. Because I couldn’t keep up, I was skipped over as if I had no value. When people see no value in you, they often have no place for you.

Renee Manfredi and a soccer team standing in front of the keepers net.

You may be wondering how this affected me? Well, I stopped asking for help and I stopped talking to others. I stayed in my own world because it was safer there. A lot of the time, I felt stupid and scared. This seriously affected my confidence and self-esteem.

But my experience joining Special Olympics and becoming an athlete was like walking through a door into a world full of possibility and opportunity. Special Olympics sees value in everyone, and they always have a place for everyone. I was included at my level of experience and ability and accepted as I am. I no longer felt ashamed or out of place.

Renee Manfredi at SOI presenting.

This acceptance is where I found my self-confidence. For the first time in my life, I was a part of a team, a team that wanted me. I think that when you are part of a team, you begin to think past yourself as you look out for your teammates, and I learned so many leadership skills out there on that playing field. The skills I gained as an athlete gave me the confidence to branch out and join their leadership programs and this lead to my employment.

I began my leadership training in the Global Messenger program. This is where I learned that I could tell my story and my struggles through speeches and make a difference in the lives of people with intellectual disabilities (ID). I also joined our Toastmasters program. These programs helped me to become a confident speaker. I think that being able to communicate is our biggest key in life. When a person cannot communicate in some way, they are in a bit of a prison. I was let out of that prison through the Special Olympics Athlete Leadership programs.

With my new leadership skills, I had the confidence to apply to become a Health Messenger. In this role I could not only tell my story, but I could advocate for other people and for change in the health systems to better support persons with ID.

As my leadership skills grew, I was selected as a Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger where I could now share my story and the needs of persons with ID on an international stage.

Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger

For twenty years Special Olympics athlete leaders have served in a select role titled Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger. These spokespeople for the movement lead the campaign for a more inclusive world for people with intellectual disabilities. Through their participation and leadership at global, regional, and local events—both internal and external to the Special Olympics Movement—they challenge the mindsets of political leaders, policy makers, educators, employers, and society. 

You see, Special Olympics not only created the opportunity for individuals with ID to play sports and learn sport disciplines but also the opportunity for athletes to become strong leaders both on and off the playing field.

Renee Manfredi at SO Hawaii office.

But why is leadership development important for people with ID in the workplace?

The Athlete Leadership skills I gained from Special Olympics put me in the position of being a leader.
Renee Manfredi, Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger

First, I believe that leadership development is important for everyone, with or without an ID, it’s just that persons with ID are not often given the opportunities or support for this development. Through my Athlete Leadership programs, I was offered these opportunities because Special Olympics focused on my abilities and not my disabilities. They also embraced the role of providing the support someone might need as they learn and grow. Therefore, leadership development trainings are so very important.

The Athlete Leadership skills I gained from Special Olympics put me in the position of being a leader. This gave me the confidence to accept an invitation from Special Olympics Hawaii (SOHI) to join their staff as the Athlete Leadership and Healthy Communities Assistant where I worked for both the Healthy Community Manager and the Senior VP of Programs who coordinates all the Athlete Leadership activities. The leadership skills I continue to develop in Special Olympics have strengthened my abilities in my job. I am also more confident to say YES to the next opportunity because I know I will be supported and I have gained the skills to communicate what I don’t understand or when I need help.

Renee Manfredi at two others at a health event.

Let’s face it, without leadership development we are not equipped with the skills it takes to get a job and because of this we often lose those jobs. Without leadership development we are often in jobs without the opportunity to advance or move to another position. Leadership development is also important because it enables us to feel more confident and comfortable in our workplace, supporting us to be better advocates for ourselves. I believe through leadership programs we can reach our full potential.

This not only helps us to be effective staff in the workplace but also lets the community see us as leaders with valued roles, not just as a person with a disability.

Renee Manfredi b/w photo.

But I think most importantly, the skills are what I am using every day, in all my life. This summer, the time came for me to leave my life in Hawaii and my job with SOHI and begin a new chapter in Texas. With my Athlete Leadership skills, I bring the confidence I have gained to my new life in Texas, and I look forward to my new role in Special Olympics Texas.

If I could give you any advice, it would be to connect with the Athlete Leadership Program in your area. The leadership skills you gain will grow the confidence needed in the workplace. It will also improve the communication skills that will help you advocate for yourself in the workplace. And being an athlete has already taught you how to be a good team member. This will help you co-exist with your fellow co-workers.

I think you can basically sum it up with this quote:

“Experiences from sports, combined with leadership training and opportunity, give our athletes the skills and attitudes to become great leaders, competitors and teammates in the workplace and communities.”

Remember: Each person brings unique skills and abilities to a job.

Good Luck and A Hui Hou ~ Until We Meet Again