Eunice Kennedy Shriver set out over five decades ago armed with a love of sports and a desire to provide opportunities to people with intellectual abilities, and was the pioneering force behind the formation of the Special Olympics. Growing up with a special needs sister named Rosemary, Shriver witnessed firsthand how capable and talented her sister was, but due to her intellectual disability, society offered very little opportunities for someone like Rosemary to show off all that she could do.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver noticed the stigma surrounding people with intellectual disabilities early on in life. They were neglected, rejected, ignored, and often were placed in custodial institutions. Shriver had been a college athlete and firmly believed that sports had the ability to unite people of all backgrounds. In 1962 she held “Camp Shriver” in her own backyard. Camp Shriver offered a variety of sports and other physical activities, which allowed children with intellectual disabilities to come together and showcase all that they could do. It provided them with a place to display their unique gifts and talents, bond with others, and be defined only by their abilities rather than their disabilities. It was a movement that quickly gained support and momentum, and six short years later the first International Special Olympics Games were held in Chicago, Illinois.
Today, the Special Olympics has spread to 193 countries and has nearly 5.5 million athletes and offers 32 Olympic-type sports worldwide. Annually, there is also a Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics Florida, and the volunteer State Director of this is retired Chief Deputy Dave Sklarek, of the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office. The Torch Run consists of the Flame of Hope being carried throughout the state via a series of simultaneous routes ran by all different branches of law enforcement. It is the largest annual public relations and fundraising event for Special Olympics Florida. It is through fund raising efforts such as this that participation in Special Olympics is offered to the athletes for free.
Here in Osceola County, 15 sports are currently offered to 1,006 participants. 382 of the athletes are female (38%). We also have nearly 200 people who volunteer their time, talents, and passion to provide coaching and year-round sports training. We had the opportunity to talk to four incredible women who volunteer their time and talents as coaches: Jeannette Reed, Christine Baudier, Jennifer Neumann, and Sally Hale.
Jeannette is currently the head coach of the gymnastics. She is also a soccer coach for the Osceola County Young Athletes Community Based Program, which is a program for children between the ages of 2-7 with intellectual and developmental disabilities that helps introduce them to sports and work on movement skills. Her inspiration to get involved as a coach stemmed from her personal experience as a parent of a special needs child, and her desire for them to grow up feeling included and discovering their own potential. That led to Jeannette and her child joining the Young Athletes Program. Seeing firsthand the impact the coaches had on her own child prompted her to begin her own journey as a coach, and she has now been volunteering for the Special Olympics for four years. In 2017 she received the Inspirational Coach Medal, and one of her athletes was awarded the Inspirational Athlete Medal. Jeannette also took the Osceola County gymnastics program to the USAG/Special Olympics Championships in Marrietta, GA in both 2018 and 2019 where they proudly represented Osceola County!
“Each athlete has something special to bring to Special Olympics. I have learned so much as a coach and as a parent of a Special Olympics athlete. Patience, perseverance, friendship, and bravery are the four biggest lessons that my athletes have taught me. Patience is what you gain when working with all abilities to better understand each individual athlete and uncover the untapped potential they bring to the table. Perseverance is what each athlete shows me as I coach them to never give up and to be brave in all attempts to reach their personal goals. Many friendships are made when being a part of the Special Olympics on all levels, with other parents, coaches, and athletes. Bravery is probably the one thing that I take away as a lesson learned. As I coach my athletes on doing their best no matter how big or small the goal, they continue to show me that bravery comes from within. I just help peel back the layers to expose it to them.”
Christine has been volunteering since 2016 and coaches gymnastics and cheer. Her own daughter is special needs, and when she began participating in Special Olympics Christine felt the urging to help give back to the programs that were giving so much to her daughter. There are two different groups in the gymnastics program: artistic (the traditional gymnastics, with the balance beam, vault, etc.), and rhythmic (where they dance with props such as a ball, a hoop, a rope, and a ribbon). This season they also had two Unified pairs for the first time, which is where an able-bodied athlete is paired with a special needs athlete and they compete together as a team.
“I just love every second that I am able to get out there and help with these athletes,” she expressed. Her favorite moments are watching the athletes progress throughout the season and seeing the sense of accomplishment they have after they perform at a competition, as well as the confidence they gain in themselves as they discover how deep their own abilities and talents run. Christine might be the coach, but the athletes teach her just as much as she teaches them. “They have taught me kindness, patience, friendship, and happiness. It makes my heart so happy to see how much fun we have together.”
Preparing for the competitions is a significant part of the athletes’ practices, but the main focal point is the friendships they forge with each other. They look forward to seeing their friends every week. “I just love it. It has been such a blessing to my family to provide these opportunities to my daughter, and she has grown so much being a part of this organization,” Christine passionately stated. “I just can’t imagine life without Special Olympics.”
Jennifer has been a volunteer for Special Olympics for eight years. She coaches swimming, track, and basketball. Her original inspiration to get involved to help her daughter develop the same love for special needs people that she has and to help teach her how to give back, as Jennifer herself grew up volunteering with special needs students. They originally volunteered with the bowling team, and after a few months Jennifer took over as the swim coach. “Then swimming became track, and track turned into basketball” she laughed, “so now it’s basically year-round that I’m coaching the three sports.”. She helps coach the Unified basketball and track teams at Harmony High School.
“Being a coach, I feel like the athletes don’t stay your athletes-they become your family, as do their parents,” she emphasized. “Every week when I go in and coach, I walk away filled and overflowing. God has just poured his blessings over me. The amount of love you both experience and witness while coaching is something I have never seen anywhere else.”.
One of her favorite memories from her time coaching is the story of a young girl named Marina, who was absolutely terrified of water when she joined the swim team and couldn’t swim. Jennifer is not only a swim coach but a certified swim instructor as well. One day at practice Marina had a flotation belt on and was swimming, and Jennifer slipped the belt off without her noticing and Marina continued swimming all on her own. Fast forward three years later, and Marina is now on the swim team for Celebration High School as well as the Special Olympics swim team. Seeing the progression that the athletes make is immensely rewarding.
As a coach, Jennifer gets to see the smiles on their faces as they cross the finish line and the sheer joy they have as they reach new accomplishments. “They are out there conquering things that to us might be nothing, but to them, it is one of the biggest mountains in their life. To see that happiness and joy, you can’t put that into any other feeling or word than blessed. I have learned patience and unconditional love from the athletes, and to keep trying without frustration no matter how long it takes to achieve something”. Another thing she loves about Special Olympics is that the athletes aren’t treated like they are special needs; they are treated just like anybody else would be. The meets and games are ran just like any others would be and get very competitive. Sportsmanship is huge, and the athletes are taught that they are not always going to win but if you gave 100% and did your very best, you are still a champion.
Jennifer also touched on the other driving forces behind the success of the Special Olympics, beyond the coaches and the athletes. “We can only be as good as our director,” she stated, “and our current county director-Chris Jordan-is absolutely amazing. It makes all the difference in the world to have a supportive director, someone who is there for us to call and text anytime we have an issue, as well as having supportive parents who are willing to step out of their comfort zones and watch their children be encouraged to do things that they think they can’t do. We are all a team, and we have to have that family camaraderie with it to be successful.”.
Sally coaches tennis, golf, bowling, and swimming, as well as being an assistant coach for cheer, softball, and gymnastics. She has also coached volleyball and basketball in the past. She has coached for 4 years now and self-proclaimed herself as the “gap lady”. “Whatever you need done, that is what I’m going to do!” she said proudly. The lack of coaches is what motivated her to become a coach. “If the kids don’t have a coach, they can’t compete,” she explained “and I was always there anyways with my son at his practices.”.
When asked how she has witnessed the Special Olympics impact lives, she said it is incredible for social aspects as well as for teaching sportsmanship and problem solving. It is also good physically and emotionally by providing the children with a place to get out of the house and express themselves, while giving them a sense of accomplishment as they discover their talents and master new skills. For example, her son was afraid of heights, yet still received the Most Inspirational Athlete medal in gymnastics because he chose to conquer his fear and still climb up the high bar anyways. Jeannette Reed was his coach, and through watching Jeannette encourage her son she began encouraging kids she coached that same way and ended up receiving the Most Inspirational Coach medal as well. “For them to acknowledge my son and I and say, “you inspire us” is a huge deal to me.”.
Her time coaching has helped teach her two significant things-patience and perseverance. “I’m not the world’s most patient person” joked Sally, “and a lot of what we do as a coach can be very repetitive, so working with the athletes has taught me to just step back and be patient. And during the times when I don’t get it and they don’t get it? Well, just keep persevering until we do get it!”.
Sally also iterated the need for coaches, and how everyone has the capability to make a positive impact by choosing to volunteer their time. “Being a coach isn’t always about your knowledge, it’s about the time that you spend with these kids. Anyone can be a coach. I’m living proof of that. All these kids truly need is your time, attention, and support. I think every parent should try to be a coach at least once, because it entails way more than they could ever imagine.”
March is also Women’s History Month, and these four women are making a tremendous positive impact in our community and are incredible examples of selflessness and love. Inclusion of everyone is something we all need to strive to work towards every single day. Osceola County is blessed to have these influential women, and many more like them. Anyone wanting more information on the Special Olympics or on becoming a coach can visit: