Special Olympics’ primary mission is to serve children and adults with intellectual disabilities through sport.


What started as a way to get individuals with intellectual disabilities into the community through sports has become a focus on sport as a vehicle to provide social inclusion. The public needs to understand that individuals with intellectual disabilities are their own individuals and that they are accepted and loved for who they are. This all starts with social inclusion. Special Olympics changes lives every day. The stories of Special Olympic athletes are heartfelt and truly inspirational.

Embracing the life you’re given

When Breanna was two, her speech stopped. By age five, she was diagnosed with autism. At first, the diagnosis was devastating for Breanna’s mom Cathy.

“You know very little about what your world is going to be like, and you don’t know what challenges are going to be ahead. You’re walking along and everything is like a blur.” Cathy said.

As Cathy and her family worked to embrace Breanna’s disability, they began to grow. They began to see and live life in a different way.

“The key is to embrace it,” said Cathy. “You could go down the pity path and think life won’t be great,” or you can embrace it. “This is your child, and as any parent would do, you want the best for your child.”

A push in the right direction

When it was time for Breanna to start school, her teachers were very accepting. There weren’t many kids at the time who were diagnosed with autism at the school, but the school worked to develop classroom settings that help kids with autism. “If you can find the right resources and can find connections with people who have experience, it helps,” said Cathy. Through the school resources, Cathy and Brenna were led to Special Olympics.

One organization, a lifetime of impact

Breanna’s first sport through Special Olympics was bowling. It was very overwhelming right away because of the many people and things going on. Breanna was ready to leave halfway through the game. However, as the bowling season for Special Olympics came to an end, Breanna was able to make it through one out of the standard three games. When the next bowling season rolled around, Cathy and Breanna returned to the sport. Before long, Breanna was able to make it through two games! “That is when Breanna started to blossom,” said Cathy. As they became more involved with the organization, they learned of other sports options for Breanna. Soon, they couldn’t get enough of Special Olympics.

“When you have a child with a disability you feel like everyone is looking at you. But when you go to Special Olympics, everyone is treated the same,” Cathy said. “It has become our world. I cannot say enough good things about Special Olympics.”

The people involved with Special Olympics are very accepting and friendly, making the organization an extraordinary part of many family’s lives.

It’s about more than playing sports

“When someone joins Special Olympics it is like joining another big family,” said Cathy.

Breanna has friendships with her athlete peers as well as volunteers and coaches. She likes to give high-fives and congratulates everyone for every milestone. In general, Breanna feels included and is happy when others to feel included as well. Cathy and her other daughter are part of the Special Olympics family as well. Cathy coaches volleyball and soccer, and her daughter is part of a unified sports team in which intellectually disabled players and non-intellectually disabled players compete together.

“You get hooked,” Cathy said. “You see the benefits and just want to be a part of it and join in.”

Cathy and her daughters also host a girl’s night where they hang out with Breanna’s teammates and volunteer friends outside of their sports activities. They socialize, get dinner, go to movies, and do other fun things together.

“The athletes want to be just like everyone else,” said Cathy. This is her way of showing them that they are.


A ripple of impact

Special Olympics helps individuals develop not just as athletes but as people as well. Breanna used to be very shy said Cathy, but “she has spread her wings.” Other than sports and fundraisers, Breanna works to create an impact by giving speeches to small and large groups about the use of the ‘R’ word. On one occasion, she spoke to the entire student body at a local middle school. One of Breanna’s biggest moments was being awarded the Roger Kerns Character Award which recognizes outstanding character and participation in Special Olympics. She was chosen out of over 1,600 athletes in North Dakota. At a presentation Breanna gave in 2017 she said:

I bowled my first strike during Special Olympics bowling.
I made my first basket at Special Olympics basketball practice.
In volleyball, I haven’t hit the ball over the net yet, but I will.
I run the Wild Hog 5k race with my Special Olympics training partner.
I am a Special Olympics Cheerleader and play in soccer too.
I am not just a teammate – I am a friend.
Because of Special Olympics, I have courage!
I feel joy!
I am brave!
And I am proud!

Just months after that speech – Breanna hit the ball over the volleyball net at the 2017 State Summer Games.

Purpose to impact

This July marks the 50th anniversary of Special Olympics – it marks 50 years of changing lives.

“We don’t just play basketball for fun – it is a movement,” said Kathleen Meagher, President/CEO of Special Olympics North Dakota.

It is a movement to show people that intellectual disabilities do not define who someone is, that people with intellectual disabilities are just like everyone else. Special Olympics provides equipment for players so that they can be prepared for their athletic events just like everyone else. Five statewide tournaments are hosted annually and costs to provide the year-round sports program include facilities, lodging, equipment, and meals. In July 2018, a delegation of 45 athletes and volunteers competed at USA Games in Seattle, Washington. This is why funding during the year and on Giving Hearts Day is so important.

Unified team preparing for 2018 Special Olympics USA

“Giving Hearts Day has been tremendous for us in so many ways,” said Jena Pierce, Director of Development of Special Olympics North Dakota.

Special Olympics works on health, fitness, social inclusion, normalization, and leadership.
“A quality sports experience, shared with the community, can build confidence and skills and shows the world what our athletes can do – why they should be included,” said Kathleen.

Stay tuned for another nonprofit story next week, and remember to live with purpose! Together, we can become the most generous region on the planet.

Derek Hatzenbuhler

Author Derek Hatzenbuhler

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