Yesterday was an outstanding Saturday in my life. I smiled for 90% of my waking hours, high-fived hundreds of lovely people, ran into a variety of old coworkers and new friends, and even cried with overwhelming happiness on several occasions.
What initially started out as a day where I felt as if I was being forced to volunteer and wouldn’t have very much fun, pleasantly transformed into easily one of the most rewarding and beautiful experiences of my entire life. Several weeks ago, an upper executive at my place of work asked for a volunteer to spearhead the coordination of the upcoming Special Olympics portion of the Law Enforcement Torch Run in our area of Los Angeles. In addition, whomever volunteered for this assignment would also be involved with the actual Special Olympics event in Long Beach this weekend. Being new to my unit and the type of person who likes to help out when someone asks, I stepped up and said that I would take the handle on this side project. What I first assumed was a side project quickly turned into a semi-main project for the next couple of weeks, as I unfolded the details of what would really be needed to make this large ceremony, charitable run, and multi-organization event possible. After pulling together all of the moving parts that made Thursday’s speaking engagement, ceremony, media event and subsequent run a success, I breathed a sigh of relief that it was over and I could go back to just handling my primary job. I took pride in the event running smoothly and my organization receiving a plethora of compliments on the execution of it. Long story short, Thursday was over and my required presence at Saturday’s Special Olympics was all that was left on my to-do list.
After sleeping in until 5am (truly feels like sleeping in when you wake up at 3:30am every day), I showered and dressed, prepped the pups for my departure, and embarked on my sixty-seven mile drive to Long Beach. Upon arrival, I met my hardworking female coworkers and we walked towards the event entrance. As we approached the group meeting area, I began to notice the large volume of volunteers, young and old, who too had woken up and gotten ready for a day of giving back. And that is just about when I started to feel the compassion, empathy, sense of community, and love that began to boil up around me. By the end of the day, these feelings swallowed me whole.
There was a short speech by several leaders in our various participating agencies, as well as a couple words from Special Olympians, before we all posed for pictures. Then it was time for the opening ceremony – I had been hearing about this portion of the program for weeks, as it was the most dynamic portion of the planning and logistical aspect of the event. Over a hundred uniformed personnel lined the inner and outer lanes of the outdoor track as upbeat music played on the portable speakers and the Special Olympians lined up just outside. The energy was building and I was beginning to feel a true sense of unity and love, as I stood shoulder to shoulder with strangers.
And then, one by one, Special Olympics athletes of all ages, races, sizes and varying disability level entered the track – some walked, others skipped and a select few had to be pushed in their wheelchairs. Some parents escorted their child, regardless of their age, because they needed a hand making the long trek through our welcoming gauntlet. As everyone in the stands and across the track cheered and shouted for the athletes, the energy was high for all those who were moments from competing that day. We slapped hands with anyone who wanted a high-five and applauded the bravery and fearlessness that every single one of them embraced.
About halfway through the opening ceremony, a middle-aged African-American man, with light facial hair, thick glasses and a crisp basketball jersey walked past me, as he too entered the track for the event. Just as he past me and our hands slapped mid-air, I yelled, “Hey, I know you!” We locked eyes and he exclaimed, “Yeah!” For a quick second I couldn’t quite remember where I knew him from but then my memory flooded back into focus – his name was Colbert and he was a Special Olympian, with whom I had worked a charity event with about eight years ago. During that event I spent several hours working side by side with Colbert, as we waited tables at a local restaurant, all while promoting the Special Olympics and attempting to raise money from the evening’s patrons. Seeing him again made me so happy because he has a beautiful soul and strong, resilient energy, despite his circumstances in life. I reconnected with him after the ceremony and later watched him play an incredibly skilled basketball game before lunch.
I am not exactly sure what it was about that moment, where I was a part of the ceremony and saw Colbert again, that brought me to tears. A part of me felt so sad seeing this large group of disabled children and adults, who have to fight through life just to survive. Some of them aren’t able to care for themselves without assistance and others will never experience some of the small portions of life that far too many of us take for granted. From driving or cooking a meal for yourself, to getting married, living independently and having children, some of the men and women who walked past me that day may never get the chance to do one or all of those things. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to or that they don’t try their hardest.
Maybe my tears were a result of watching the large groups of parents, volunteers and coaches who selflessly dedicate their lives to helping, teaching and supporting some of the most vulnerable members of our society. The stress, money and commitment that comes with that significant job is definitely underappreciated yet on this past Saturday, for a brief moment, I could see them sharing in the happiness and success of just being there. For some of the supervising adults, and most likely all of the participants, this weekend may have been the highlight of their year, or possibly their lives.
While I don’t intentionally have experiences where I want to learn something from them, when I do feel transformed by a particular event in my life, I really try to soak up all of the lessons that lie right below the surface. I implore anyone who has never volunteered for a charitable cause, particularly with groups of people with special needs, to get up and do so. Maybe you won’t be impacted as strongly as I have been but your response may surprise you. At the very least, you will bring a smile to someone else’s life and it will give you a greater appreciation for humanity as a whole.