“I’ve been doing this for 29 years and I enjoy watching athletes grow up and mature through Special Olympics and become part of their community,” Fishburne says. “I also enjoy watching athletes who are just getting started and seeing the confidence they gain when they start to participate in sports. It’s like anyone who first tries a sport: Even if they aren’t the best at it, they realize they can do it and create an opportunity to feel like part of a team and feel accepted as part of a community.”
It’s not just the athletes whose lives are lifted by what Special Olympics has to offer. It casts a much wider net.
“In addition to the athletes themselves, the people most impacted by Special Olympics are family members,” Fishburne says. “Moms, dads, siblings and grandparents who might have fear and uncertainty for the future of their family member, get to see them live life to the fullest because of their participation.”
Volunteers are a major part of the lifeblood of Special Olympics all around the world. North Carolina is no exception.
“For volunteers, we have a very robust offering called the Unified Champion Schools Program, where we are offering an opportunity for people of any age—from kindergarten through college—to come together with our athletes in the communities where they live,” Fishburne says. “Volunteers meet the athletes and begin to get out and participate, play and get active. We refer to it as a unified activity because we have folks with and without intellectual disabilities coming out and being part of sports. That’s really the best way to start.”
The Unified Champion program is one way to get involved with Special Olympics, but not the only way.
“You can go down the road of being a coach,” Fishburne continues. “There are people that help us raise funds. There is always something that needs to be done, and anyone that has any skill set can be a benefit to us.”
For volunteers, staff, athletes and parents, Special Olympics has long been a platform to lift people and bring them together in the spirit of sports and competition. The Special Olympics athlete oath sums it up perfectly. “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
“Being a part of Special Olympics has taught me that doing hard things can be fun and rewarding. I have been a swimmer in Special Olympics for 12 years. I love being a part of a team, making new friends and becoming a better a swimmer. When things are hard, Special Olympics has empowered me to try new things, be a leader and help others.”—Megan Czejkowski
“I’ve been a Special Olympics athlete since 2008 and have trained and competed in soccer, track and field, and snowboarding. My favorite sport is definitely soccer and, in 2014, I won a gold medal in soccer at the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games in New Jersey. Special Olympics has made me a more confident person, on and off the field of play. Every time I play on the soccer field or go down the ski slopes, I know that I am going to give my best. I’m a better leader for my soccer team, at my job and in the Special Olympics movement.”—Romas Gabbrielli
“For example, an athlete might have vision problems and we are able to have eyeglasses made for them. That will help them competing in sports, and it also means they will be able to see better in life. That will help them with reading, as well as with going out to get a job or living on their own. We want to offer services that help our athletes beyond the field of play.”—Keith L. Fishburne
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PHOTOS: courtesy of Special Olympics North Carolina