Category Archives: Special Olympics

Sometimes best advocates for those with special needs are the individuals themselves.

 

Andrea Pinard

“Andrea will always be in my heart,” said her sister Claudia “Clyde” Lewis.

During our recent stay in Colorado, my husband Larry and I hiked to Adam’s Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park. As we were finishing our walk, we saw a group of young adults with intellectual disabilities hiking up the trail. We learned later that they were on a field trip with Adam’s Camp, part of a non-profit organization which offers intensive therapy, family support, and recreation in a camp environment for children and youth with special needs.

Seeing the group brought me much joy. On that beautiful afternoon in Colorado, the campers were happy, glowing, involved. Less than fifty years ago, they would have had a good chance of being marginalized at best, institutionalized at worst. Claudia “Clyde” Lewis’ sister Andrea Gregg almost suffered that fate.

Clyde’s parents met in high school, and Clyde was born soon after graduation. Her father, Robert Pinard, went into the Navy and would never meet her until she was nineteen years old.

Her mother Iola married Arthur Gregg when Clyde  was ten years old. Andrea was born two years later. Clyde, her mother, and step-father were delighted with the newest member of their New Hampshire family.

When Andrea was about six months old, the pediatrician recommended that Iola take Andrea to the Dartmouth Medical Center, citing ‘respiratory problems’ as the reason for the evaluation.  “My mother recalled Andrea getting a great deal of attention,” said Clyde. “She thought it was because there was only one other baby on the medical center’s floor.”

Then the doctors gave Iola the life-changing news. “You realize that your little girl has Down syndrome, don’t you?” Predicting that Andrea would never walk, talk, or function normally, the doctors recommended placing Andrea in an institution and “forgetting about her.”

The devastated parents reached out to the family for help. Iola’s brother insisted that the family move near them in California, one of the few states at the time that offered special programs for children with intellectual disabilities. Iola and Arthur decided to make the move as soon as Clyde finished her school year in June.

Clyde’s parents didn’t share the news of Andrea’s condition  with her until the family on their way to California. “It was the saddest car trip of my life,” said Clyde. “I cried the entire time, not able to accept that my beautiful little sister was different.”

Once the four of them settled in Santa Ana,  however, Clyde didn’t let Andrea’s differences get in the way of loving her. She took her sister under her wing, mothering her and helping her learn to walk and talk. It changed Clyde’s outlook on life. “If you wanted to be my friend,” recalled Clyde,” you had to accept the fact that Andrea would be tagging along. She was my sidekick.”

Clyde also advocated for her sister when Andrea started special education classes. “Andrea was always bugging me when I was doing my homework,” said Clyde. “So I put up a chalkboard and started her on her ABC’s. Soon she was writing her own name and reading. I went to her teachers and showed them what she could do.” Andrea also learned to write in cursive, which she regarded as one of her greatest accomplishments. “She loved telling people she could sign her ‘John Hancock’” said Clyde.

Clyde graduated Santa Ana Valley High School in 1963 (a relatively unknown band, The Beach Boys, played at her senior prom) and enrolled in UC Fullerton. In her junior year, her birth father, Robert Pinard, connected with Clyde and asked her to come to Vermont that summer to meet him, his wife, and her seven half-sisters and brothers. Clyde agreed to go as long as she could also bring Andrea.

Robert owned and operated the ski shop/shoe store at Norwich University, a private military college. He asked Hal Lewis, one of the  Cadres breaking in the incoming cadets to “watch out” for the daughter whom he had never met. “I fell in love with Clyde AND Andrea,” said Hal. After her college graduation, Clyde flew back East to attend Hal’s graduation. The two were married and settled in New Hampshire.

After she graduated from her special education program, Andrea worked different jobs at Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and a local supermarket. When Arthur retired, the three of them moved to Charlestown, New Hampshire to be closer to Clyde, Hal, and their support. Clyde would drive the six hour round trip  from her home in Plainstov at least once a week to  take them shopping and to doctors’ appointments.

Andrea enrolled in a sheltered workshop program. She also became involved in a local Special Olympics track and field program. Although she wasn’t good at the sport, her reading and writing skills made her an ideal “administrator” for the team. Her success in those duties resulted in her appointment to the board of the New Hampshire’s Governor’s Council for the Disabled. Once a month, she went to Concord to participate in the meeting and attend workshops on how to handle themselves and their interactions with others.

Both parents passed away by the time Andrea was forty-eight years, and she came to live with Clyde and Hal. They set her up in the lower level of their home in a area with her own private entrance that contained a bedroom, a room, and a kitchenette. Andrea was thrilled. “I never had my own apartment before!” she exclaimed.

Soon after her suitcases were unpacked, Andrea and Clyde made a trip to Walmart to buy needed items for her new “apartment.” After trips through all the aisles, they headed to the check-out line with a shopping cart filled with kitchen items, towels, and bedding. Suddenly, two women pushed in front of Andrea with their cart.

“Move your fat ass,” one of the women told Andrea.

“What did you say to me?” she demanded.

“You heard her,” the second woman said. “She said, ‘Move your fat ass!’”

Andrea pulled herself up to her full five foot height. “People see my disability when they look at me,” Andrea said loudly. “People can see YOUR disability when you open your mouth!”

As the two women deserted their cart and slunk away, the people waiting in line burst into applause and cheers.

Clyde beamed with pride. “I guess you can take care of yourself.” she said.

“And I guess those advocacy classes are finally paying off!” said Andrea.

Andrea lived with Clyde and Hal until her death at 53 from heart disease, a complication of her Down syndrome. Clyde keeps a picture on her refrigerator of  her beloved sister. They are standing together, with their arms around each other, smiling broadly.  “She will always be with me in my heart,” said Clyde.

Scott Hamilton, the Olympic skater said, “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.” Thanks to advances in public education, the intellectually challenged have opportunities to reach their full potential. Thanks to programs like Adam’s Camp and Special Olympics, these same individuals have opportunities for recreation and personal fulfillment. And thanks to people like Andrea, Clyde, and her family, we all are made aware that every individual—no matter what their challenges—can offer much to our world.

Repairing the World

In 2014, my husband Larry spent eight days in New Jersey as the New York State triathlon coach at the Special Olympics USA National Games. He described his experience as “incredible” and “life affirming.” As soon as he arrived home, he tried to catch up on his sleep as he got less than five hours a night for the entire trip. How he got to this nirvana of sleep deprivation is part of Shapiro family lore.

Almost twenty years ago, Larry announced at the dinner table that he had signed the family up to volunteer at the New York State Special Olympics Summer Games that were being held at University of Albany in early June. My children had been involved in sports for a long time, and Larry recognized that many volunteers had made their swimming, cross country, and track and field meets possible. He felt the four of us should pay it forward by contributing our time to the intellectually challenged athletes at the state-wide event in the track and field competition.

We enjoyed our experience enough to sign up to volunteer again the following year. While at the games, Larry was asked to help out with the Saratoga County track and field program that met April through mid-June at the Saratoga Springs high school track. Larry’s co-worker also volunteered, and the two of them drove up every Monday and Thursday from downtown Albany. After a couple of years the two of them extended their time commitment to include helping at local Special Olympic meets.

As the years progressed, Larry took on more and more responsibilities. He became head coach and held additional practices for athletes who exhibited high levels of skill in an event. He started a cross country running program, volunteered to coach for the Clifton Park bowling program, conducted coaching certification classes, and served on various Special Olympic committees. Larry knew that his involvement in Special Olympics would give him focus and purpose after he retired. It was shortly before his last day of work that he found out he was chosen as one of the track and field coaches for the National Games in Lincoln, Nebraska, in July 2010. One of our athletes came home with silver medals in the 1500 and 3000 meter runs.

Along the way, Larry had convinced me and a number of friends to become track and field coaches, and we all gained much from our participation. The best part for all of us was being with the athletes at practices. Twice a week every spring, over forty athletes ranging in age from sixteen to eighty years old, several coaches, and numerous parents and group home staff would gather at six o’clock at the track.  The athletes ranged in age from eight to seventy-five, with their intellectual and physical challenges ranging as widely as their ages. Larry started everyone off with a team cheer P-A-C-E-R-S! Then the activities began. On the field, some athletes threw a softball and had their distances recorded by the coaches. A group of stronger athletes worked with a coach on the turbo-javelin and the shot-put. Others were practicing the standing long jump. On the track, athletes, depending on their levels and abilities, participated in runs, walks, wheel chair events. The visually challenged ran twenty-five to fifty meters holding a baton strung through a 50 meter rope that was held in a straight line by cheering team mates. Practice ended with Larry gathering up the athletes for one more cheer before they went home. Two or three times a season, coaches and members of the team participated in local competitions on a Saturday morning. Whether we were at practices or at our meets, our athletes’ times and distances were secondary to just having fun. The cheers were as loud for the athlete who threw the softball two meters as it was for the athlete who came in first in the 1500 meter run.

Larry took pride in the accomplishments of every athlete and was always recruiting new team members. While helping with Special Olympics bowling during fall 2013, Larry watched an athlete decimate the pins with his powerful swing. Larry persuaded Rich to join track and field and use that strength to throw shot-put and the turbo javelin. By the end of his first season, the athlete impressed officials at the state games in Buffalo enough for Rich to be chosen to compete in Nationals in New Jersey. While there, he not only won a gold medal in his division in the shot-put but also came home with gold in the turbo jab with the longest throw of anyone in the country in the turbo javelin finals.

Saying goodbye to the Pacers when we moved to Florida was one of our hardest moments.We follow their accomplishments on Facebook and through emails. In honor of our athletes, we have named the small body of water in our backyard “Pacer Pond.”

Tikkun Olam is a Hebrew expression that means “repairing the world,” the moral principal that states every individual should leave this world better than he or she found it. I take pride in knowing that Larry’s involvement in Special Olympics is his way of making the world better for so many athletes.

Freezin’ for a Reason

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FREEZIN’ FOR A REASON

I had always been intrigued by stories and pictures of polar plunges, where hundreds of smiling people clad in only their bathing suits head into a body of water in the middle of the winter. They say they are having fun. I never got it until I found myself diving into Lake George, water temperature around 50 degrees, on November 16. Crazy? Yes! Glad I did it? Double yes. Because I was “freezin’ for a reason.” I was raising money for Special Olympics Capital District.

Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. The Special Olympics Capital District region provides year-round training and competitions to more than sixteen hundred athletes from twelve counties in fourteen different sports. For a number of years, Larry and I have been involved as Special Olympics track and field and bowling coaches.

We have also participated in Special Olympic fundraisers. One of the most popular and well known in the Capital District is the Polar Plunge, where hundreds of people plunge into Lake George on the third Saturday of November. In a moment of insanity, I had signed up and participated in the plunge in 2011. Within minutes of coming out of the water, I swore to anyone with ear shot that I would never do it again.

I am no scientist, but to me this is definite proof that humans have very short memories. Our schedule in 2012 prevented my doing it, and I was thinking of finding another excuse for 2013 until…..

In a second moment of insanity, I committed to rejoining Freezin’ Friends, a team of plungers headed by Joni Rhodes from Schuylerville. Her son Nick participates in several Special Olympic events, including our track and field program, and I again wanted to raise money to support athletes like Nick. In the middle of September, I began a fundraising blitz, mostly through emails and Facebook. The response was amazing. I had pledges from family and friends across the country and even from England. Most pledged on line, but many others handed me checks or cash, commenting “Better you than me!” and Boy, you are brave!” By the day of the plunge, our team had raised close to $5000, and the region total was approaching $77,000.

By this time, you would think that I would be mentally and physically ready to dive back into Lake George. I hadn’t died the first time; my heart had held out; I didn’t even catch a cold. But in the days before the plunge, I had nightmares about going into a freezing lake. In addition, this year I was going to finish what I had started in 2011. In my first year, most of my supporters congratulated me and praised my bravery for plunging up to my neck. However, a few people kiddingly questioned as if I had ever gone in the lake, as my hair was still dry and the water droplets on my body didn’t show well on the photos. This time, I was going to make sure that pictures showed a soaked bathing suit and a wet head so that no one would doubt my commitment.

We were very fortunate with the weather. The morning of the plunge was a beautiful, sunny, calm day, with air temperatures in the fifties. Larry and I stopped at the registration desk and then headed down to Shepard’s Park Beach. Over my bathing suit, I had flannel pants, a thermal shirt, my Polar Plunge sweatshirt, and a warm terry bathrobe. Under my water shoes were heavy woolen socks. I located our team by finding Joni in her traditional Dr. Seuss hat she has worn for each of the seven plunges in which she has participated. I recognized most of my teammates from 2011, a mix of Nick’s family, friends, and Special Olympics coaches. Om addition, a large group of students from Schuylerville High School had signed up for the fundraiser, bringing our team up to over thirty people. Joni provided all of the members of the team with a choice of colors in Santa hats.

Several other teams of plungers were also on the beach, including Max’s Buddies, Freeze Duchenne, and Brian’s Bashers, and the Siena men’s baseball team. We spent the next couple of hours munching on bagels, sipping hot coffee, taking pictures, and connecting with members of our team and the other plungers. Several were in costume: capes, polar bear hats, boas, and, in the case of one man, a skimpy beige bikini bathing suit. My Miley Cyrus look,” he explained.

At ten minutes before noon, all the plungers stripped down to their bathing suits and, shivering despite the warm sun, lined up to wait for the signal to hit the water. At exactly twelve noon, led by three athletes holding the Special Olympics torch, over five hundred and fifty crazies streamed into Lake George.

As my ankles hit the water, I faced my first obstacle. As our team was near the end of the line, we were going into the lake when the members of the Siena men’s baseball team were coming out. Fast. Blindly, with no concern for who was in their way, I darted through their hurling bodies until I found a clear spot in the water, took a deep breath, and dove in, orange Santa hat and all.

OH MY GOD! Why didn’t I remember it was this cold! I immediately thought of those poor people on the Titanic and had visions of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack clinging onto the edge of the makeshift raft that held Kate Winslet’s Rose. I could not get out of the water fast enough. I ran onto the sand, hair and body dripping, searching desperately for Larry and, more importantly, my bathrobe and towel. As soon as I found him, I asked, “Did you get a picture?” Larry said yes, but there must have been ice in my ears, as I didn’t hear him and headed back into the water for a second totally unnecessary photo opportunity.

I have to say that it wasn’t as bad as the first time. Maybe the sun had warmed my body. Or I was so numb I couldn’t tell the difference. Larry took a couple of more pictures, and I was finally able to head for the women’s warming tent, where I quickly changed into dry clothes. We drove back to Clifton Park with the car’s heater going full blast.

Later that afternoon, Larry and I talked about the plunge over large bowls of steaming chicken and rice noodle soup at a local Chinese restaurant. “Next year, I need to wear a different bathing suit and a pair of shorts as those pictures I posted on Facebook are just too embarrassing,” I said. “And maybe if I start earlier, I can raise more money.”

Larry nodded, “Let’s just see what happens with our schedule next year.”

A final note: Larry has yet to sign up to plunge, citing several reasons why it should not be a joint effort: He needs to be on the shore to hold my bathrobe and towel. He needs to take pictures. He needs to drive me home as I will be too cold to drive myself. He doesn’t want to take away from “my” event. Maybe he has more common sense than the rest of us, or maybe he just doesn’t know how to have fun.

First published in Jewish World, 11/21/2013