It’s All about Attitude

Story by Rita Chisum

The date July 20, 1968, brought to the world stage an array of unique and skilled athletes from 26 states and Canada. The event once went largely unknown to those without a special interest in this gathering of underestimated individuals. 

In the backyard of the Maryland home she shared with her husband and five young children, Eunice Shriver Kennedy – sister of President John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Ted Kennedy — began exploring and nourishing the potential of these “winners- in-waiting.” As a result, in 1962, Camp Shriver — the origin of what is widely and well-known as “The Special Olympics” — was born.

Love for her older sister, Rosemary, who suffered from mild mental retardation, coupled with a request from a mother seeking a summer camp for her child with intellectual disability, fueled Eunice’s determination to make a way.

With high school and college recruits to act as counselors, the summer day camp for children and adults with intellectual disabilities aimed to explore their capabilities in a variety of sports and physical activities. It didn’t take long to discover that these special needs campers held untapped potential.

A passage contained in a Camp Shriver brochure, “The Beginnings of a Movement,” aptly describes the camp’s initial achievement: “To almost everyone’s surprise — the exception being Eunice —
it was an instant success. The children swam, kicked soccer balls, shot baskets, and rode horses under the summer sun. The young counselors, wary at first, began to see, as Eunice already had, that these children were not ‘difficult,’ ‘un-teachable,’ ‘belligerent,’ and all those other stereotypes that had been ascribed to them. They merely wanted to have fun…just like every other kid.”

Kyle was 11 years old while, in a different part of Russellville, Darla was 10 years old on that very July 20, 1968, day. Living separate lives much like other children, they were unrestrained by physical or intellectual disability. Running, jumping, playing, swimming, fishing and doing chores, each was unfettered and unaware of what was happening at Soldier Field in Chicago, Ill., on that day.

Little could either imagine that this historical event would eventually touch their lives — and those of the family they would one day have together.

Less than 13 years later, the day after their first child Robert Michael was born, the doctor came into their hospital room delivering the news that Darla and Kyle Jones’ beautiful baby boy had Down Syndrome. Darla, being a young mother under the age of 30, had less than a 1-in-1,000 chance of bearing a child with this genetic chromosomal malformation.

Although separated now as if by a journey of a million miles, Darla vividly recalls that moment as one of “a small death, a period of mourning.” But, today she exudes enthusiasm, joy and gratitude as she speaks of the many blessing that they have experienced in being given the privilege of loving and nurturing their oldest son. It is abundantly clear that theirs is a mission and a passion for supporting and encouraging others whose children or loved ones suffer from mental or physical disabilities.

Involvement as a family with SOAR (Special Olympics Arkansas) before their son was eligible to participate began when R.J. — as he likes to be known — was six or seven years old. He is now 28.

“I don’t remember a time when we weren’t involved,” Darla says, searching her memory. Family members each found a special kinship with what they now consider their second family. The group includes: Kyle, employed at Entergy’s Arkansas Nuclear One; Darla, a nurse and health specialist at Pottsville Schools; Robert, the first Pottsville SOAR athlete and multi- medal winner in previous Special Olympics Competitions, and Derek, their younger son, serving the U.S. Navy on an aircraft carrier. Derek is married and the proud father of a daughter, the first in sixty years on the Jones side of the family!

“God, family, Special Olympics…” therein lie the family’s priorities.

So dedicated to this second family are Darla and Kyle that they have served as Area 17 Directors for the State of Arkansas for the past eight to ten years. Pope and the surrounding counties of Conway, Faulkner, Van Buren and Perry comprise the Area 17 area.

Directing any area of the state involves year-round demands. With the extensive list of sports offered occurring year-round, taking on the role of Area Director could easily be considered an “act of love.” Special Olympics is a strictly volunteer organization (with the exception being paid administrative staff) so the “love factor” is undeniable.

Their commitment involves organizing and coordinating training for coaches, athletes and the area games. Their Management Team, which includes athletes, coaches and family members, helps reach yearly goals. Goals include moving many athletes to the next level of their abilities.

“With all of life’s other obligations, it’s not always easy to express your gratitude as you would like. But we have an excellent Management Team for which we are very grateful.”

A call to the Arkansas state headquarters or SOAR and a conversation with Terri Weir, program director, revealed some surprising numbers. Arkansas touts approximately 14,376 athletes. Of that number, roughly 600 participants represent Area 17. Approximately 3,000 volunteer coaches throughout the state number assist with the program. Family members, friends, neighbors, teachers, students, pastors and church groups represent a sampling of the volunteer force which gives of their time to make the Special Olympics experience possible.

Law Enforcement and Realty Agents represent two of the organization’s most dedicated groups of supporters — both monetarily and in terms of man power. Law Enforcement’s annual “Torch Run” not only raises much needed funds but provides a visual, inspirational and enthusiastic opening to the State Games.

Teams made up of law enforcement officials, as well as Special Olympians, begin their run from the four corners of the state running through Arkansas communities and ultimately coming together to light the Special Olympics Torch, declaring the official opening of the games.

Arkansas offers 15 of the 26 nationally- offered Special Olympics sports. Athletics includes 18 track events, six field events and the Pentathlon. Other events include: aquatics, basketball, bocce, bowling, cycling, figure skating and speed, floor (hockey), football and golf. Also offered are: gymnastics, power lifting, softball, tennis, and volleyball.

An especially-attractive volunteer opportunity for skilled athletes without disabilities comes in the form of Unified Sports. Peer athletes with talent in their respective sport are paired with a Special Olympian to encourage and enhance the skills of their partner.

“It’s all about the Special Olympian.” Sports such as basketball, bocce, and softball are sports falling within the “unified” designation.

Russellville has been privileged to host the annual State Basketball Tournament for the past 22 years. Out of necessity, the Tournament is held during the local school district’s Spring Break to avoid conflicts with facility availability. Somewhat of a challenging time to elicit volunteers, Darla explained just how essential the volunteer force is to the success of the Tournament.

“We started the State Basketball Tournament here in Russellville and we want to keep it! That’s why it is so important to attract our volunteer force so we can provide the support the Tournament requires.”

So, what about the Olympians themselves, the Stars of the Competition? Eligibility for Special Olympics Athlete specifies that applicants possess “some form of intellectual or closely-related developmental disability.” Coming from every walk of life, ethnically diverse, young and old, and each with unique talents to offer, Special Olympics seeks to allow participants to discover and nurture their abilities.

Ineligible until the age of eight years each athlete, upon acceptance, is positioned according to age, gender, and disability. The goal of such grouping is to encourage and nourish personal success within a group of their peers. With dedicated training, patience, and love these athletes gain a deeper sense of their abilities and pride in their accomplishments as they work hard to do their personal best.

“These athletes aren’t just numbers on a piece of paper: their I.Q. They bring so much more to the table than that. You just have to look for it.”

With much anticipation and excitement, a total of 93 athletes accompanied by 24 coaches from Arkansas will participate in the Summer National Olympics in Lincoln, Neb., from July 17-25, 2010. The University of Nebraska will host the event, welcoming Athletes from the United States. Among these will be six athletes, three Unified Partners, and six coaches from our own Area 17.

Is there any way to measure the impact that this experience has on the lives that it touches? Those who volunteer will tell you that “you’ll never see life the same way again after sharing time with these amazing athletes.”

It’s easy to imagine as joy radiates from the faces of each participant, whether on the Medal Stand, on the ground, or in the cheering section, the positive influence it leaves with those blessed enough to take part.

But R.J. says it best. Each National or World Special Olympics Games adopts a theme of encouragement and commitment on which the athletes focus. The 1995 World Games provided R.J. with one he’s committed to memory and uses — yes, even 15 years later — to encourage others.

“It’s all about attitude, Mom.” Thanks for the important reminder, R.J.

 

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