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The special Olympics got me ready for game time: as a volunteer, I got schooled and I was hooked.

When I was 12, I was walking home from softball practice, alone, on a Friday afternoon.

I stopped in the Vons grocery store at the bottom of the hill below our house to use their pay phone to call my Mom, and ask her if I could get a ride the rest of the way. I was wearing cleats, and they were click click clicking on the sidewalk, and not very comfortable on my feet.

When she didn't answer the phone, I walked over to the produce department to pick out an apple for the rest of the walk. What I found there changed my life.

As I poked among the apples--feeling their firmness, smelling their red, mottled skins--I saw a little blond boy across the aisle stuff a fistful of green grapes into his mouth. His mother came up behind him with her cart, and tapped him on the shoulder. He jumped at what I assumed was the surprise of being caught. As he turned to her, her hands started flapping furiously in the air. Her face and gestures told him clearly that she was unhappy, but it was without spoken words. Silent mother fury I realized that the boy was deaf.

I stood staring--probably with my mouth hanging open, because that's how I roll, just ask my kids--and thinking how cool it was that he was getting in trouble. It struck me that Mom was not giving him any slack for his deafness. She did not feel sorry for him, or herself. Her kid had just stolen something, and he was busted. She was reading him the Riot Act, but with her hands and face.

I thought, "She is the best mom. She is treating him just like a normal kid." Suddenly, a large voice said through me, in me, around me: "You will be, too."

I dropped the apple I was holding back into the pile.

Now if you have read any of my other pieces, you probably figured out that I have always been a spooky little Catholic girl. I learned early on that for me, prayer is less about yammering at God about what I need or want, and more about doing my best to just shut up and listen. I recognized the voice.

So, after I trudged up the hill in my cleats, I sat and thought about it. I admired that mom, and candidly felt pretty good about the idea of my being like that. I decided I better start practicing.

Serendipitously, on Monday at St. Euphrasia School, there was a fluorescent orange flyer posted on my seventh-grade classroom bulletin board.

It said the local YMCA was looking for volunteers for a dance for what were then called "handicapped" kids. It was for that Friday night, and it was a fundraiser for Special Olympics.

I smiled, looked up at the speckled ceiling, and thought, "Now you are just showing off."

As I walked into the YMCA gymnasium that Friday evening, I admit I was feeling pretty full of myself. Here I was, a "normal" girl, giving my time to hang out with a bunch of handicapped kids. I wrote my name in large letters on my name tag and stuck it to my shirt. I scanned the room, saw a dark-haired boy about my age standing alone, and walked confidently over to him.

I read his name tag: Josh. I held my hand out, and said in what must have been a smug, self-satisfied voice, "Hi, Josh. Would you like to dance with me?"

He left my hand hanging out there, and looked me up and down, appraisingly He folded his arms, looked slightly past me and said, "Nope. You are too ugly."

I just stood there. I think I remembered to put my hand down, but I am not sure.

Just then, a short, round girl whose face showed me she had Down syndrome walked up to us.

She said, "Hey, Josh. Wanna dance?"

Without hesitation, Josh said, "Yes."

She grabbed his outstretched hand, and as he let her pull him over to the dance floor, he looked back at me over his shoulder, and gave me a withering look.

Wow. Was I put in my place, or what? It occurred to me that maybe I was ugly--not my face or body, but my self-congratulatory attitude. I sat down on a folding chair, thoroughly humbled, and just watched kids dance.

They were all shapes and sizes, many in outfits that did not match, some sweaters buttoned wrong, some zippers undone, most of the pants too short, revealing different colored socks. But they were clearly having a blast, enjoying the music and each other.

I sat there for what felt like a long time. I was being schooled, and I knew it.

Finally, a very tall, very skinny, scruffy boy approached me. His bushy hair stuck up straight from his forehead and his eyes appeared huge through thick bottle-bottom glasses.

He looked me over, did not seem very impressed, but held his hand out to me with resigned kindness.

He said: "C'mon, Amy Time to dance."

I grabbed his sweaty hand gratefully He was a terrible dancer. They all were. But I joined that crowd of dancers with pride.

By the time my mom picked me up outside the gym that night, I had learned some powerful stuff, such as if they like you, they show you. If they don't, they show you that, too. The big joy or big grumpiness, the total honesty were just plain refreshing compared with the duplicity of the "normal" kids I knew. There was no backstabbing here. It was right in your face.

And where I was consumed daily with self-criticism and wanting to fit in, these kids just seemed to be exactly who they were. Boom. Take it or leave it.

I was hooked.

I volunteered for Special Olympics for the remainder of grade school, and through high school. When I attended the finals at UCLA the summer before college, I had been involved long enough to be assigned as one of the coaches for track and field.

My job was to organize the four-athlete relay teams before the race, cheer them on like crazy, and then put the silver medal over the head of the runner who came in second place, hold their arm up to the roaring crowd, celebrate with and for them. Sounds easy enough, right?

These athletes were good. Huge, strong, fast. Most zoomed by me, close behind the runner who had broken the finish line tape, then turned and approached me, glistening with sweat and grinning, to collect their silver medal.

One tall, beautifully muscled young man went by me in a blur, neck and neck with the front-runner. He gave it his all, and they seemed to push through the yellow tape together. Everyone stopped and looked up at the judges' table in the stands. The ruling: He had placed second.

I walked up to him, smiling and yelling congratulations. I held the red, white and blue ribbon holding the silver medal as high as I could, for him to put his head through.

He pushed the swinging medal away from his face, and gave me a disgusted look. Then he knocked me out cold.

When I came to, lying in the red dirt of the track, I looked up at the concerned faces of my fellow coaches. I had a very sore jaw where the athlete had punched me. But I was fine. And, crazily, not even the littlest bit angry I was once again in awe about the straight out honesty of these folks.

As an athlete myself, I had pretended many times to feel sportsmanlike about losses, when I was really just plain angry and frustrated and disappointed. All that work, and no win. I totally got it.

So I dusted myself off and handed out the rest of the medals. Once again, I had been schooled.

Seven years later, I had graduated from Loyola Marymount University, married and started our family After I gave birth to our second child, a boy named Nick, I knew immediately that he was not "normal." But instead of feeling grief--as so many parents understandably do--I felt a kind of relief.

I looked at his angry red face, his tiny clenched fists, and said, "Oh, here you are."

Thirteen years before, that big trusted voice had assured me that I could and would do this. And, like the competitor that I am, I had honed my skills via volunteering for Special Olympics for all those years. Now, the practicing was over. It was game time.

[Amy Morris-Young graduated from and taught writing at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.]

Caption: Winslo Riley, left, with his coach, Amy Jones, competes with David Gustavson during a Special Olympics Minnesota bocce ball competition at Beltrami Park July 19. 2015, in Minneapolis.

Caption: The Orange County Special Olympics gymnastics team makes its enlrance during the Special Olympics Summer Games In Long Beach Calif., on June 9, 2012.

Caption: Brandon McClain, with volunteer Susi Miller, participates in a race at the Gaston County Special Olympics Spring Games, April 20, 2012, at Grier Middle School in Gastonia, N.C.

Caption: Jacob Millard competes in the preliminary speed skating races during Special Olympics Iowa Winter Games Jan.13, 2014, at tthe Mystiqu Community Ice Center in Dubuque.


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Title Annotation:Volunteers
Author:Morris-Young, Amy
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Jan 15, 2016
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