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My Special Olympics Story

Hello, my name is Bruce Clarke and I am an athlete & staff member with Special Olympics Arizona. This June I will have my 5 year anniversary working for this amazing organization. One of the many things I have learned while working for Special Olympics is that everyone involved with this organization—whether they be a staff member, athlete, volunteer, board member, parent of an athlete—has a story behind why they are involved in our organization.

That being said I would like to share with you my Special Olympics story. I was born with a number of different disabilities that I will have for the rest of my life. I have low muscle tone throughout my body which means that my muscles will never be as strong as another male my age might be. I was born with one horseshoe kidney. I had heart surgery at 18 months to replace my aortic valve (one of the things in my heart that I do not even know what it does). I have had hearing loss my entire life and wear hearing aids today. I went through speech therapy from elementary school all the way through college.

As you can probably imagine I was never able to participate in organized sports like football or basketball with other kids my age because my body was not built like other kids my age. My very first involvement with Special Olympics was in high school. One of my Adaptive PE teachers was coaching a basketball team for the City of Tempe. This was a Special Olympics basketball team and I played with people who had intellectual and physical disabilities. While I enjoyed playing on this basketball team, for some reason I did not really create a bond with them. I think part of the reason is because all of my life I had this view of myself that I was “different” than my friends and the kids that were around me. In elementary school I was “different” because I did not learn as fast as the other kids in my class. I was also “different” because I would be pulled out of some of my classes for speech therapy. I think the reason I never created that bond with my teammates on that Special Olympics basketball team was because they were “different”. At that time I had just moved to the Phoenix area and was starting out at a new high school and I did not want my new friends to think that I was “different”. After I played one season with this team I never got involved with Special Olympics again in high school.

I went on to graduate from high school and went up to Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. After I graduated from NAU I had to do about a 3 month internship to complete my degree in Parks & Recreation Management in order to receive my diploma. I graduated in May of 2012 and moved back down to Phoenix to find an internship. One day I was talking with my sister about places where I could intern at and she mentioned to me I wonder if the Special Olympics have an internship.

The last week of May I had an interview at the Special Olympics Arizona office for an internship. The first day of my internship was June 11th. I interned under the Healthy Athletes Coordinator who did all of the health screenings at our events. I did not even know that this program existed. When I thought of Special Olympics all I saw were those “different” people competing in sports. Throughout my internship I learned so much about the Special Olympics organization and learned that there is so much more than just sports offered. In late July as I was starting to think about what I wanted to do career-wise after my internship was over, I sat down with our CEO and talked about what I really wanted to do with my college degree. I came into this meeting already having an idea of what I wanted to do. I wanted to work for a YMCA or Boys & Girls club. I liked what I was doing with Special Olympics but it was not what I was passionate about. I found out that our CEO actually used to work for the YMCA and had possible connections for me to get a job there.

In August I attended my first Special Olympics event and I saw the joy and sense of accomplishment on those athletes’ faces. Throughout the month of August I was still thinking about my options after I completed my internship. September came around and that was my last month of my internship. Special Olympics took me out to lunch. I remember sitting down at the table and our CEO and CFO took the chairs on either side of me. They were about to thank me and give me my parting present when our CEO says, “Before we do the gift I would like to say something, Doug Taylor (our CFO) and I have been talking and we would like to offer you a job with Special Olympics”. Everyone at the table was shocked, especially me.

For the first time in my life I was around a group of people who really understood who I was as a person and they did care what I had to say.

My supervisor would be the same person who supervised me during my internship. A few months later they gave me my first big role within the organization. They put me in charge of creating and maintaining the Athlete Input Council which is a group of 4-5 athletes that gets together and talks about what we could do different as an organization, give us ideas on how to make our competitions and events better. This is about the time when I started to gain a real attachment and bond to those “different” people. Also, I started to grow a bond with the people I worked with as well. Before I started with Special Olympics and most of my internship I was very quiet, I just did my work and went home. I never really opened up to anyone. This was because, like I said before, my entire life I have had a speech impairment and have always gone through speech therapy. Whenever I would say something I felt like I always had to repeat myself or if they did hear what I said, then what I said wasn’t important because I did not feel important as a person. I still saw myself as “different”.

For the first time in my life I was around a group of people who really understood who I was as a person and they did care what I had to say. In the next few months my passion changed from working at a YMCA or Boys & Girls Club to having a passion for working for Special Olympics Arizona. This was my dream job and where I knew I needed to be. Our athletes needed me to be a part of their lives and more than that I began to realize I needed them as part of mine even more.

Over the next year I continued to grow as an employee and as a person and I grew the Athlete Input Council and Athlete Leadership as a whole. A couple of years into my job my boss had a great idea for a new Athlete Leadership program where our athletes could go through different trainings and develop the skills they needed if they wanted to pursue a job themselves. He gave me this task because he knew that I could understand the types of trainings and resources our athletes would need on the subject of finding and maintaining a job. We call this project the Athlete Employment Project and provide training such as resume writing, mock interviews, and professionalism in the workplace. Developing these trainings was something that came naturally because they were things that I struggled and still struggle with at times. My role now is that I am in charge of all of our Athlete Leadership programs which include the Athlete Input Council and the Athlete Employment Project.

About two years into my job with Special Olympics Arizona I thought about becoming involved as an athlete again. I participated in basketball with one of our group-home delegations the first season; this was not a very good experience at all. Sixty percent of the time my team would not show up for practice and no one would let me know that we didn’t have practice so I would be practicing by myself. I learned that our delegations that are group-homes are very much unorganized at times. Also, during one of our games during our area tournament, one of my teammates used foul language on the bench because he didn’t want to be taken out of the game. During another one of our games one of my teammates stormed off the court because he didn’t like a call the referee had made. To me this was frustrating because this was not what Special Olympics were all about. Special Olympics is not about teammates fighting with each other and having a bad attitude. After our season was over I didn’t really want to play another sport again because of that experience.

A few months later one of my coworkers convinced me to give it another try and I registered with the City of Peoria to participate in Special Olympics Volleyball. Playing for the City of Peoria really opened my mind to the way that playing Special Olympics sports should be. I was on a team with a group of people who I quickly became friends with. The niece and son of our CEO were actually on that team. This team was a Unified Team (People with/without Intellectual Disabilities playing on the same team). We ended up winning the silver medal in our state tournament and, more important than that, I made friendships that will last a lifetime.

Special Olympics has allowed me to become more outgoing than I ever was before and the people I work with everyday are like family and our athletes are definitely an extension of that family.

That fall a lot of the people I played volleyball with were starting a new all Unified delegation in the West Valley called the Westside Warriors, so I decided to play basketball again this time with the Warriors. This experience was completely different from when I played basketball the year before. This team formed a bond and was truly unified in every sense of the word. I played with both of our CEO’s sons and his niece was our coach. Also one of my supervisors was on that team as well. We won the silver medal in our area tournament and bronze in the state tournament.

Last fall I decided to play Unified Bocce with the Westside Warriors and our CEO actually decided he wanted to play and he was my Unified Partner. I had never even played bocce and barely even knew what the sport was at the time. My Unified Partner Tim & I won the silver medal at our area bocce tournament.

I cannot tell you how much Special Olympics has changed my life and how much the people I have met through Special Olympics have changed my life. Honestly if I didn’t find Special Olympics I don’t know where I would be in my life right now. I might be working at a YMCA or Boys & Girls club but something would be missing in my life. Special Olympics has allowed me to become more outgoing than I ever was before and the people I work with everyday are like family and our athletes are definitely an extension of that family.

In closing I would like to say to any young people who might read my story is that it is great to have dreams for yourself and what your life will be like after you graduate college. But don’t let those dreams cloud your vision to the point where you miss out on something else along the way. In my case, something that turned out to be so much better than I could have ever imagined my life being.

Bruce Clarke, Special Olympics Arizona

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