Meet present-day Stephanie. She’s in her 17th year of being a Special Olympics athlete. She works as a customer clerk at a local grocery store, and has done so for more than seven years. She’s happy, well-spoken and teems with self-confidence.
Meet teenage Stephanie. She’s not an athlete. She’s shy. She’s bullied so badly her leg was broken. She’s fearful and meek. Her peers make fun of her because she is disabled.
The difference? Special Olympics.
After a miserable time spent in junior high and high school, Stephanie joined up with Special Olympics Northern California during her junior year of high school. She made friends, learned new sports, opened up and became more sociable.
In addition to competing with Special Olympics, Stephanie also speaks to packed auditoriums. She tells her story, how her life could have been different if she had participated in the Schools Partnership Program like some of the audience members and encourages everyone to be respectful.
We caught up with Stephanie to learn more.
How has Special Olympics helped you in your life and in your job?
I’m able to talk to people. I’m not afraid to talk to them because I’m not shy anymore. It’s made me to where I’m not shy at all. I’m a total people person. I’m totally outgoing, and I get lots of compliments from almost everyone.
What was junior high and high school like for you?
It was not a good experience at all. I was always picked last for teams and was laughed at. In middle school, I was picked on so badly to the point where I had my leg broken and the boy that did it was only suspended for a few days. But I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. It led me to find Special Olympics. Before, I always expected the worst, but now I don’t have to experience that anymore because now I’m confident. It’s not easy, but being confident and true to yourself is important.
If you could have participated in the Schools Partnership Program when you were in school, how do you think that would have changed things?
It would have been much, much better. I would have had a lot better experiences than I had. I think it makes more kids and adults aware of kids and adults with intellectual disabilities. Everyone should bring and raise more awareness. It’s very important for the kids like me and the kids that are not disabled to see that we’re just like everyone else – to see that we shouldn’t be treated differently.
When you speak at assemblies, what do you want the students to take away from your speeches?
To not be afraid to be themselves. They should be able to do anything that they want to do. I want them to be respectful of everyone because we’re all the same. If they see someone who’s struggling – it doesn’t matter if they have a disability or not – they should ask if that person needs help.
You’ve mentioned to us that one of your favorite memories is when a girl at an assembly asked you what she should do when she was being bullied. What advice did you give her?
To not be afraid to be herself. Just go out there and do what you want to do and don’t let anyone tell you different. To not let it bother her, and to just be herself. Everything will come together.
Why do you not like the r-word?
Because it’s not a nice word at all, it hurts anyone, anyone just like me. I don’t encourage that word at all. I try to stop it as much as possible. It’s not a nice word at all. It hurts everyone. After the assemblies, it makes my heart feel good because the students understand why that word hurts and they stop using it.
What would you tell children and adults with intellectual disabilities about joining Special Olympics?
They should absolutely get involved with Special Olympics. There’s no experience needed. You don’t have to be shy. We’re all the same. They would absolutely love it.
How does it make you feel when non-disabled peers volunteer with Special Olympics?
It’s really good because it makes us athletes feel like they care. It’s best when the students volunteer because they care, and not because someone told them they had to. Everyone should get involved as a volunteer.