The following is a guest article written by Special Olympics Board Member and brother, Jamie Spencer.
Have you ever witnessed a stranger perform a gesture so simple yet impactful that it left a lasting impression on you? I’d like to introduce you to “Johnny the Bagger” and his story.
Why is such a simple act of kindness by Johnny so embraced? Deep down, we all want to be accepted and feel we’re serving a purpose in the world. Unfortunately, the vast majority lack confidence or allow the fear of failure or societal pressures to prevent us from ever living out our true purpose. Johnny doesn’t succumb to that fear.
I have an older brother named Rick, who has intellectual disabilities much like Johnny. As a kid, having a brother like Rick made me extremely angry and afraid. Angry that he couldn’t shoot pucks in the garage or ride bikes around the neighborhood like a “normal” big brother. Angry we couldn’t go out to dinner like so many other families for fear that Rick might throw a tantrum in the restaurant if it were too noisy. Afraid that my friends wouldn’t want to hang out or would stare or make fun of him. Afraid that a girl would never want to date a guy like me. Afraid to leave him alone on a playground for the fear of the verbal abuse and laughing he would be confronted with.
By virtue of my brother’s participation as a Special Olympics athlete, the anger and fear are now gone and have been replaced by thoughts of inspiration and hope. It took me awhile to realize that I was fighting against a form of ignorance and fear from a society that simply did not understand how to deal with people like my brother and what they might learn from him.
Thankfully, there are organizations like the Special Olympics that understand the nuances that challenge a family structure like mine. They understand why inclusion and self-confidence are vitally important for the intellectually disabled to feel truly accepted in society. Their mission goes beyond serving people like my brother and his family members; they also introduce the many people who are unfamiliar with developmental disabilities to the inspiring people throughout the world who live their best lives in spite of their disabilities.
It may sound strange if you haven’t interacted much with someone like my brother, but there is a chance you could be missing out on an extremely important aspect of life and a key ingredient to a fully-integrated community. One my favorite programs, called “Project Unify”, was created to blend athletes with and without intellectual disabilities to engage in athletic competition. Programs like these help us understand and accept each other’s strengths and differences. 500,000 people worldwide now take part in this program, and it’s breaking down stereotypes about people with intellectual disabilities in a really fun way.
For these reasons, I recently chose to join the Board of Directors for Special Olympics Minnesota. As part of my commitment, I accepted the opportunity to take the “Polar Plunge” at Lake Calhoun on March 5 and pledged to raise $10,000 for the organization. Monies raised at the event provide athletes much like my brother the chance to find their confidence and experience inclusion through team competition.
I am proud to be a part of Special Olympics Minnesota, and I hope you will consider spreading their message of inclusion and awareness. The world could learn a lot from people like Johnny and Rick.
Jamie Spencer, Special Olympics Advocate
Vice President, New Business Development & Assistant to the Chairman