Every week, for around two to three hours, I have the privilege of volunteering with a local Special Olympics soccer club.
The club is called the Blue Streaks and is made up of three teams divided by age — elementary, middle school and high school/adult age players. Most of the players suffer from Down’s Syndrome, a disability caused by an extra chromosome that affects physical and emotional development.
I wanted to help out with the team ever since I volunteered at a kids’ camp over the summer and spent a week caring for a nine-year-old with Down’s Syndrome. That week was easily my favorite of the entire summer, and I wanted a chance to help similar kids.
After three weeks of working with the Blue Streaks, I can tell you one thing. Maybe on paper, the group of 50 players are “disabled.” Maybe they struggle developmentally. They aren’t very accurate when they kick the ball, nor do they have the widest vocabulary or the best pronunciation skills.
But those kids are more blessed than most high school students. They possess more tenacity, more compassion and more ability to persevere, than any student I have met at East. They have so much less than me, and also so much more.
There’s Emily, who remembers the name of every volunteer, and who greets each of us with a hug at the beginning of Tuesday practices. Emily is also a junior in high school, and she loves to remind me every day that junior year isn’t really that hard. Whenever she scores — even on an unguarded goal — Emily throws her hands in the air and keeps them there until someone gives her a high five. She is the definition of pure joy.
There is also Will, who always introduces himself by wrapping his arms around your waist and flashing a gap toothed grin. Will is in elementary school and spent his first practice constantly reminding me that his name had two ‘L’s.
He struggled to get through a ball-handling station, but every time he succeeded in dribbling the ball around a cone, he looked at me with an expectant look, and I would cheer for him. I was proud of this boy who I hardly knew, because I knew that rounding that cone was just as important to him as passing my AHAP test was to me.
Volunteering doesn’t always come easily, and some of the athletes struggled. A heat advisory is enough to make Varsity athletes shy away from outdoor sports, and the youngest Blue Streaks kids struggled throughout hot practices.
I spent one afternoon simply trying to get Gavi, an eight-year-old, to stay standing for more than five minutes. At first, it seemed monotonous and frustrating. But as I worked more with Gavi, teasing him onto his feet and chasing him around with a soccer ball, I began to appreciate the difficulties he was facing and the amazing amount of strength he possessed.
When you volunteer, you are often more changed by the experience than the people you are trying to help. This is such a cliche of volunteering, but after spending three weeks working with Special Olympics, I have realized its truth. My contribution to these kids is minor — a smile, some drills and a high five every Tuesday afternoon. But the special hearts I have met through Special Olympics have given me so much more: respect, compassion, patience and most importantly, appreciation for all that I have.