“Spending time with Special Olympics athletes and seeing them so passionate about life and each other truly brings joy to us as a couple,” say Special Olympics New York volunteers Laura & Sean Fitzgerald, who’ve been married for a year.
Special Olympics New York
211 East 43rd St., #1205 NYC 10017
Founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Special Olympics provides opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities to develop physically and to experience the joy and friendship of athletic competition. Special Olympics involves more that 1 million athletes, and is organized in over 150 nations around the world. With nearly 1.5 million volunteers, it’s also the world’s largest volunteer organization.
Eunice’s husband, Sargent Shriver, served as Chairman of the Board for Special Olympics International for 13 years. What brought him to Special Olympics? “My wife!” says Shriver. “For several years she and I had been exploring how to improve the lives and potential of people with mental retardation. Through experimentation and observation we discovered that a) they could swim, b) they could ride a horse, c) they could climb a tree, d) they could jump on a trampoline, e) they could laugh, and f) they were great fun.”
Sargent Shriver served under President Kennedy as the organizer and first director of the Peace Corps. In addition he created VISTA, Head Start, Job Corps, and Legal Services for the Poor, programs that continue to have great impacts on the lives of countless people every day.
“Those who work with people with mental retardation seem to become happier themselves,” says Shriver. “I really believe these people, in their innocence, are capable of teaching us important values in life.”
Many Ways to Assist
Laura is the public relations manager at Biotherm USA, Sean is a vice president of futures and derivatives sales at Lehman Brothers. They’ve volunteered with Special Olympics for several years. “Sean volunteered while in grade school for his church, and I volunteered throughout college. Anyone who’s ever volunteered for Special Olympics will tell you that the events are addictive. Once you volunteer, you’re always looking for opportunities to come back and help the athletes, coaches, and other volunteers.”
“Laura contacted me a few years ago interested in helping at our Metro Tournament,” says Doreen Hand, associate director of public relations for Special Olympics New York. “She helped with public relations efforts and pitched in wherever she was needed, which even included hauling tables and chairs.
“This past June, Laura and Sean ran our Track Awards for the Metro Tournament. It was Sean’s first time volunteering with Special Olympics in several years, but he has great ease around the athletes and enjoyed every hug and high five.”
There are many ways to volunteer with Special Olympics. You can become a coach, be a volunteer for various events in your area, or participate in walk-a-thons, 5K runs, polar plunges, airplane pulls, and other exciting fund-raising events.
“The great thing about Special Olympics is that you can put in as little as a few hours a year, or as much as a few hours a week,” says Doreen. “Every one of our volunteers is of value to us, because we cannot provide quality training and competition for our athletes without them.
“Giving your time to a volunteer organization like Special Olympics is incredibly rewarding. People who have volunteered a few hours to simply come out and cheer at Special Olympics events get hooked. It’s that exhilarating. To see individuals whom you think were dealt a bad hand in life exceed in a sport, doing things the average person can’t do — running a marathon, speed skating, or making a hole in one — you just can’t help but want to be part of it all.”
Special Olympics is based on one key concept. “You compete to do your best,” says Chairman and CEO of Special Olympics International Timothy Shriver. “In our 100 meter competition we may have 100 different heats! Everyone gets a chance to compete against athletes of similar abilities.”
Each athlete is placed in a heat based on his or her best time. “If you run the 100 meters in 15 seconds, you won’t be placed against anyone who’s run it in less than 14 or more than 16,” says Tim. “If they’ve done their best, they’re all winners — which is the way competition ought to be.”
“Volunteering has brought us closer together as a couple,” says Laura. “We were able to share the experience and to see each other in a new light. We discovered new things about one another. Who knew Sean was such a great awards announcer? Having the opportunity to be a part of this organization, and to be part of the lives of the athletes and their families, is amazing, and fun.”