Volunteerism isn’t always about revisiting familiar neighborhoods, but it can be. A lucky Wake County volunteer gets back to his Special Olympics roots.
Growing up, my childhood home was the destination of all of the neighborhood kids to play. Not because I had the latest electronics, (we did have Nintendo’s Duck Hunt), but because the games in our yard were more fun with my older sister, Megan, around. Our games, usually whatever we made up—modified Tag with ever-changing rules, impromptu dodge ball games, or throwing magnolia seeds and crabapples at one another, etc. –were enhanced and audibly scored with the sounds of “Oohs”, “Womps,” “Ahhs,” and the general laughter Megan provided as we all played. It heightened the level of enthusiasm for us all and was the reason the neighborhood kids always came to our house.
Our games were more fun with Megan’s sounds and enthusiasm. Megan is 5 years older than me, and I found out my first day of kindergarten there was a reason Megan, or Mimi as we call her, made such fun sounds. As I waited for the bus in the front yard, I asked my mother why Mimi wasn’t packed to go to whatever this ‘school’ thing was. My mother told me it was because she was Special. Ah, of course she was. Even as a 5 year old, I knew that. She made games better. She went to a special school. She had a cool, special nickname. Of course she was special. I remember being proud. Even though I wasn’t special at least my sister was.
We threw magnolia seeds at one another until I saw the bright oranges of the school bus behind the deep, late summer greens of the magnolia. I got my book bag, walked up the bus’s stairs and down the aisle. All the kids were smiling and laughing. I remember being excited about the prospect of school. Happy kids, super rad, big orange bus, lunch in a bag! I was told I may even be painting with my fingers. You kidding me? Not bad. I took a seat next to a kid in the front. I began to hear the yelling over the laughing.
“Look at her hands,” said a kid with glasses.
“Look at her face,” said another.
“Look at the retard.”
Always the curious sort, I looked as prompted. As I turned around, I saw that everyone was on one side of the bus looking out. I clambered a bit over the back of the seat to get a better view. Mimi stood in the front yard and was waving goodbye. The laughter became “Drrrs” and pointing was replaced with backhanded chest slaps. The bus started moving, and I turned back around.
Before we got to school, the kid I was sitting next to asked me if that special Ed girl had been my sister. And I heard that word “special” again. It all came together for me when I heard that word again. The laughing. The sounds. And something I had never known. Shame. I assured him it was just my neighbor.
Pretty heavy kindergarten lesson, but everyone has a relatable, lost innocence story like that. This blog post is not about losing innocence but striving to find pieces of it again.
Volunteering In Wake County: Special Olympics’ Summer Games
There was one organization throughout the years that did remind me of the innocence and joy the old neighborhood games represented to me before that bus trip—Special Olympics. Although I remember helping out and – sort of – growing up, we all get busy, and volunteering for the Special Olympics became a memory.
Until this past Summer Games, May 31-June 2, when I decided to not-so-much volunteer in Wake County, where I live now, for the North Carolina games, but to find the joy I knew existed there. Between dignified competition and the atmosphere of inclusion; between the pride of the competitors and the (almost selfish) joy families and shaggy-haired volunteers (like me) experience makes Special Olympics, well, pretty special.
Fun and Games at the Special Olympics
I didn’t want to “help”—to coddle, to worry, to aid. I wanted to have fun! Anybody that knows me, knows having fun is pretty important to me. Going to the Post Office, dentist office, grocery store, etc., I believe having fun, within and outside reason, is vitally important in many things! Volunteering included. Even if it’s a soft-spoken, gentle joy. Anyways, I volunteered for the opening night ceremonies and the next day for softball because I though these would be fun! Like our neighborhood games.
Opening night began with a line of signs raised high the air announcing the competitors’ respective counties; their team colors marching purposefully and unified around the grassy knolls of Time Warner (Walnut Creek) Amphitheater. As they passed my area, I started a few chants with the counties that brimmed with excitement. (“Who’s got more?” “Moore’s (County) got more.”) High fives punctuated the better chants, and the sounds of enthusiastic competitors would fade into the cool, summer night’s air, making their way into the VIP sections of the amphitheater.
After the team announcements, the National Anthem, the arrival of the torch carriers, and the lighting of the eternal flame, it was time to party! And party we did! Two bands played in two sections of the amphitheater and with a lanyard saying “Dance Volunteer,” I tried not to fail in my charge. Besides getting made fun of by the more seasoned rug-cutters, I did my best, and as I had hoped—it was fun.
The next day was the softball skills competition at Lion Park in Raleigh. As competitors and volunteers in Wake County showed up on a beautiful, if not somewhat balmy, morning, it was apparent today was for competition. I became an athlete’s escort, which was great. I moved with a team as they competed at the various stations. My escorted teams, of which the athlete’s and I collaboratively always dubbed the Thunderbirds, worked on their fielding, hitting, throwing and base running. After a while, cheers and the sounds of excitement, joy and encouragement filled the late-morning air—the familiar sounds I remembered from my childhood when playing.
For me, volunteering with Special Olympics, or volunteering in general, isn’t just about helping, even though it does. It was about having fun and being a part of a community. Doing something “good” is honorable, but the greatest honor is being allowed to offer assistance to a community’s goodness and to be included in their particular community spirit. The joy of volunteering is about joining that community. Even if only for a short time, and even if it’s out of your particular neighborhood.