Thirteen years ago, after an opportunity to volunteer presented itself, Amber Radford was introduced to Special Olympics North Carolina. Along with her sister, she was offered an internship with the local Special Olympics program in Durham County, sparking a love that would ultimately turn into one of her life's biggest passions: coaching.
Originally working with just children with intellectual disabilities at her first soccer practice, Radford was initially unsure about shifting to coaching adults with intellectual disabilities. "I looked at my sister and said, 'I don't know how well I work with adults,’" she recalls. Her sister reassured her everything would be alright and encouraged her to give it a shot.
At that moment, Radford "fell in love with it," she says, adding, "they have skills as adults that we don't have to teach and we can just work with those skills.”
Everything she does assists the athletes’ growth in sports and, more importantly, in society while she stands on the soccer pitch or the volleyball court. She takes life experiences and throws them into her coaching philosophy, always having a reason behind her madness.
"We'll drill at the beginning to work on specific things. Like if we noticed at volleyball everyone really struggling with calling the ball and they would all stand there with the ball and nobody would get it, we would focus on that in practice," she says. "At the end, depending on the sport, we'll wrap up with some scrimmages."
A special education teacher, Radford uses the techniques she’s learned for the classroom to work with athletes during practice and beyond. Parents appreciate that she has the background knowledge and skillset necessary to give individualized attention to each athlete. She makes every athlete feel comfortable. But most importantly, Radford cares.
"Everything Radford does is in order to promote a sense of pride among athletes in the accomplishments they have achieved. Practices, competitions and extracurricular activities are designed to be fun, memorable and positive experiences for athletes," Keith Fishburne, Special Olympics North Carolina president and CEO, says about Radford's coaching.
"That sense of pride is nurtured through the development of friendships among athletes, a familiarity for the sport and integrating joy along the way," he continues. "From playing an athlete's favorite song during practice to organizing a team craft, Radford's goal is to make her program feel like home."
Anything from silly string wars to eating mini cupcakes to face painting is how Radford interacts with athletes beyond the influence of athletics. She enjoys sports, but having one-on-one time, prank wars and taking pictures, one of her favorite things to do, is what she really cherishes.
She has coached numerous sports, including softball, volleyball, soccer, basketball, flag football, and bowling. Coaching at least twice a week, she has crossed paths with countless athletes and families. But no one more so than her sister, Ashley Anderson—who also happens to be the Special Olympics local coordinator for Gatson County.
"Amber also has a strong focus on the value of Special Olympics in the community," the proud sister shares. "She helps organize fundraisers, promotes Special Olympics within the community, attends all events [locally, statewide], and more.” She adds that Radford is "continuously promoting Special Olympics to those that she sees in the community."
So, when COVID-19 forced Special Olympics to shut down all in-person activities, Radford got creative to keep the sense of community going.
"We really tried as a county to say 'we are still here' and 'we are still active’," she says about the shutdown. "As a county, we made the decision that we didn't want our athletes to feel like we had kind of forgotten about them or that we were too busy doing other stuff."
Despite everything being abnormal, Radford helped athletes find normalcy in staying active and connected at home. They held virtual socials and would share positive messages on Facebook to remind each other they were still together in this experience.
Communication "became a lot of computer-based [opportunities]," which made organizing activities challenging. Several older athletes did not have access to things like Zoom.
"For athletes like that, we tried to specifically call them and let them know of things that were going on if we knew they would be interested," Radford says. She continues with "all the socials moved to virtual which broke my heart because I love decorating and there was nothing to decorate."
But Radford’s creativity helped make even the virtual socials more engaging. With all the major holidays, Radford and the Special Olympics North Carolina community gathered supplies for the games they were going to play, and distributed individual bags to the athletes.
It has made all the difference for the athletes and their families.
"My daughter, Zaeva, began Special Olympics almost three years ago, at the age of 10. Zaeva has an autism diagnosis and had been treated very badly by her peers at school," a Moore family member shared in a nomination form. "She was subjected to so much cruelty from her classmates, even going so far as to physically lock her out of the school building.”
"From day one, Coach Amber made her a part of the team," they continue. "COVID has changed the way the world works and we are still coming up with what this new normal will be, but pre-COVID-19, Coach Amber made practice a special event every week!"
And once practice became virtual, Radford once again rose to the occasion with creativity and a sense of humor. "You never know how creative you've got to be until you have to teach a Zoom soccer practice inside your house without breaking anything," she says.
"It's very hard," she adds with a chuckle.
But Radford’s dedication and heart make it all possible. Years after her unsure start working with adults with intellectual disabilities, it's now part of her identity. Even after moving away, she still travels an hour each way to coach the athletes she started with, saying “these are my people.”