BENNER: Gifts of joy surround us even in times of sadness

December 22, 2012

For me, like many of you I presume, the tragedy in Connecticut has cast a pall over the normal feelings of joy and anticipation of the Christmas season.

While we eagerly await the arrival of family and friends for the holidays, we cannot escape the latest news from Newtown or the reporting of another funeral. Our American family grieves collectively.

In the midst of this, though, on Dec. 18, one week before Christmas, I found my spirits lifted and my soul inspired by a timely reminder that we are much more about the good and light of this world than we are about the evil and dark.

I learned of a most precious gift, from one group of athletes to another, and it will be a gift—pardon the cliché—that truly will keep on giving, I hope for years to come.

This was not adult-inspired, but rather came from the hearts and wishes of a group of 17- and 18-year-old Indiana high school athletes. They are the 18 members of the Indiana High School Athletic Association’s Student Advisory Committee, and through their desire to be servant-leaders, to seek to contribute to a greater societal good, to use their skills and intellect in ways that could benefit others, they set about to find a charitable organization to which they could bring their youthful energy.

Careful study and deliberation brought them to Special Olympics Indiana.

Thus, one week before Christmas, the IHSAA and SOIN announced a partnership. The goal is for high school athletes in the 410 member schools throughout the state to engage in mentoring, coaching, fundraising, support and awareness of Special Olympics athletes and events.

“[Special Olympics athletes] are no different from us,” said a delightful young lady, Ally Stein, a track athlete at Hamilton Southeastern High School who is president of the Student Advisory Committee. “We both have a burning desire to participate in athletics.”

The IHSAA athletes are giving the best gift they can: the gift of themselves.

How welcome is that gift? Allow me to share the words of a Special Olympics athlete, Andrew Peterson. Andrew is 19. He participated—and lettered—in varsity cross country at Pike High School for four years. A Special Olympics athlete for seven years, he was asked to provide a few remarks at the announcement of the IHSAA partnership.

What he had to say was eloquent and moving:

“Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.

“Good afternoon. My name is Andrew Peterson and I am a proud member of Washington Township Special Olympics. On behalf of the 11,000 athletes in Indiana, I would like to thank the IHSAA and the Student Advisory Council for selecting Special Olympics as its charity of choice. Your mentoring and coaching will benefit hundreds more athletes in reaching their potential. Thank you for always believing in our abilities.

“I began my speech with the Special Olympics oath, which symbolizes the vision of Eunice Kennedy Shriver when she founded this incredible organization in the 1960s. [The oath] has been said by thousands of athletes all over the world and represents the bravery we athletes need, not only when we compete to win in Special Olympics but also when we compete to be included and be accepted in our schools and in our communities.

“Through seven years of participation, I gained valuable self-confidence and went on to earn four varsity letters in high school cross country. Today at the age of 19, I still love to run and practice six days a week.

“Achieving a gold medal and a personal best are important to me. But we athletes seek a greater reward. We don’t ever want your pity. Rather, we need your respect, the respect that all people with disabilities deserve.

“You see, Special Olympics means more than winning. It gives the athletes the chance to improve our fitness, compete with others who have equal abilities, feel good about ourselves, gain an extended family, and show everyone that each person with an intellectual disability is not a nobody but a somebody who can contribute to society.

“So here’s to the winning partnership between Special Olympics Indiana and the Indiana High School Athletic Association. Never forget the lasting impression you will leave on me and my fellow athletes. Thank you.”

No, Andrew. Thank you and young people like Ally Stein and her peers, for reminding us that there is light, good and hope in our world.•


Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.


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