Monday, September 21, 2015

Olympic Caring Changes Lives

Viper Students Help Individuals 
with Disabilities Swim Through Barriers

Exactly one year before JFK's pioneering call to action culminated in Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the moon in July 1969, another improbable mission launched by the former president's sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, resulted in an equally barrier-breaking advancement for the betterment of humanity.

In founding the Special Olympics, Mrs. Shriver brought worldwide attention to the importance of improving the quality of life for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In an opening speech at the first international Special Olympics Summer Games in July 1968, Mrs. Shriver encouraged participants by sharing a motto used by Roman gladiators: "Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."

Mrs. Shriver's legacy is alive in the actions of Viper Swim Team members Alexis Armstrong, Samantha Hurst, Drew Macon, and Megan Fehrenbach. Every Saturday, these students volunteer to help Special Olympians develop into stronger swimmers and become confident individuals as they swim events of 25 meters, 50 meters, or more.

"I love making connections with the swimmers, and seeing them improve," said Samantha, a junior.

"I just like to help people with special needs," said Drew, a home-schooled junior. "Not much more to it than that."

"I like the responsibility that comes with helping the other people who are less fortunate," said Megan, a sophomore.

"You get a really close connection with them," said Alexis, a junior. "You bond and learn different ways to react to different disabilities like autism or Asperger's syndrome or physical challenges like participants who are wheelchair-bound. We want them to know that even though they may have a disability, you can still do a lot of the things normal people can. It may be harder and you may have to overcome bigger obstacles, but you can do anything you put your mind to do. That's really my goal, to help every participant feel important and go far in life regardless of the challenges they face."

Samantha Hurst, a junior at Space Coast Jr./Sr. High School and a member of the Viper Swim Team,
enjoys helping Special Olympians increase confidence as they improve their swimming skills, overcome challenges, and achieve life-changing successes.  

Throughout the entire event, volunteers help coach participants on proper swimming techniques, as well as motivate them to complete events.

"We get in the water and help the swimmers that need extra attention," said Samantha. "Learning the strokes and certain techniques helped me know what to look for while they're swimming, to know what they're doing right and wrong."

The desire to help individuals with unique challenges is personal for Alexis. "I personally have disabilities that I have overcome," she said. "I want to be able to show people with disabilities that they can overcome the problems they are facing. I've had this passion to help others since all of the experiences I've gone through personally and seeing how some kids with intellectual disabilities are sometimes mistreated or misunderstood."

Space Coast Jr./Sr. High School teacher, Mrs. Sadie McKinnon, served as a guide to Alexis in preparing for the path she is pursuing. "Mrs. McKinnon helped me prepare," said Alexis. "Mostly, I have experience with special needs kids since I want to be special needs teacher."

"A lot of times with disability, you're told you won't succeed," Alexis continued. "When people have something like dyslexia or ADHD, some people think you're not going to go as far as others. Just because you've been diagnosed with something doesn't mean that you can't go far in life and reach toward your goals."

"I am always there to give them a 'Good job!' or a High Five to help encourage them to keep swimming and not give up," said Alexis. "I love that I can show them how to get better or just be able to get them to go farther than they thought they could. Sometimes I'll ask them, 'Do you need a break?' and they'll say, 'No! We're ready to go, again!'"

Drew sees similar levels of enthusiasm from participants as they build confidence and improve their swimming skills. "All I can think of is them all coming up and telling me, 'I'm gonna get that ribbon!'"

"I get sooo happy when they compete and try their hardest," said Samantha. "Watching their faces light up after receiving a ribbon fills me with joy."

Volunteering often has a reciprocally beneficial effect. "It is so cool how the participants get so excited and are so appreciative of everything we are doing at the event," said Alexis. "It makes me appreciate the little things in life."

Reflecting on who would make a good volunteer for the Special Olympics, Drew said, "I think it's more about just finding somebody with the heart and mind to help people."

The volunteer season concludes after the State Aquatics Championship in Sebastian, FL, on October 3rd and 4th.

These Viper Swim Team members deserve a special Thank You for the big impact they are making with the Special Olympics. Their efforts are helping brave Special Olympians swim through barriers and achieve successes they never knew were possible.

Special thanks to Doreen Erickson (parent volunteer) and Sadie McKinnon (teacher) for contributing to this story.

To learn more about how local programs are transforming lives, visit Special Olympics Florida.

Stay current with Space Coast Jr./Sr. High at Space Coast Edline.

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