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How volunteering at The Special Olympics changed my outlook on life

Kerry Linden is Catch22’s Executive Vice Principal for Education at the Multi Academies Trust. Outside of Catch22, she devotes her free time to volunteering. Throughout her time volunteering at various world-sporting events she has become passionate about the personal rewards and benefits it has brought to her life and encourages everyone to give it a go, insisting it can give you a new outlook on life.

26 March 2019

To give you a bit of insight, my volunteer life really began in 2012 at the London Olympics.  I’m still not entirely sure what drove me to volunteer, other than my love of London and wanting to showcase it to the world – and didn’t we do just that? Since then I have continued to volunteer, mainly at major sporting events such as the Rugby World Cup, the Hockey Women’s World Cup, the 2016 Rio Olympics and last summer at the Cricket World Cup.  However, three years ago I was introduced to a remarkable organisation – The Special Olympics.

One woman’s vision is now a global movement

The Special Olympics was formed by an American, Eunice Kennedy Shriver.  Her sister had an intellectual disability and Eunice found the way she was excluded by others was totally unjust.  She and her sister played sports together and in the summer of 1962 Eunice hosted a day camp in her back garden. She believed that if people with intellectual disabilities were to be given the same opportunities and experiences as everyone else; they would accomplish far more than anyone ever thought possible.  What began as one woman’s vision evolved into a global movement that is now known as Special Olympics International and today it serves more than 4.7 million people with intellectual disabilities in over 200 countries.

Skip forward three years and I am currently volunteering in Abu Dhabi, rearing up for this year’s Special Olympics World Games from 14th – 21st March and I am ecstatic to be here. For this year’s event I have been given the fabulous role of Delegation Assistant.  Essentially, this means I am allocated to a team (in my case Malta) and I support them with the logistics of getting their athletes to the right place at the right time as well as a fair amount of troubleshooting along the way! There are around 7,500 athletes currently in Abu Dhabi competing in the World Games. I feel incredibly privileged to be living with the team – sharing the smiles and the tears with the athletes, coaching staff and their families. Seeing their enjoyment and passion is what makes it worthwhile for me. I was even given the opportunity to parade with them during the opening ceremony – which was designed by young people with and without intellectual disabilities.

Inclusion, tolerance and peace

The opening ceremony was incredibly moving – it talked of inclusion, tolerance and peace.  The words of Timothy Shriver (Eunice’s son) ring in my ears: “The right to play on any playing field? You have earned it. The right to study in any school? You have earned it. The right to hold a job? You have earned it. The right to be anyone’s neighbour? You have earned it.” These things should not have to be earned; they should be a basic human right.

During my time over here, I have been increasingly impressed with the UAE’s initiative to host a Global Youth Leadership Summit during the time of the Special Olympics – taking full advantage of the high number of VIPs visiting the country at this time. The Summit will see delegates from 39 countries attending and the focus of this Summit is towards improving a unified education system. The key message being – those with Special Educational Needs (SEN) should, wherever possible, be given the same opportunities as their mainstream colleagues.  This may not mean they spend their entire time in mainstream school, but that there are significant opportunities for those with SEN to learn alongside those without SEN. This is an important philosophy that I have been championing for since I began working in SEN. There have been several “unified” events at this Special Olympics including bowling and basketball, which is great to see. Being able to attend the Summit is just another great benefit from my time volunteering here in Abu Dhabi.

So why volunteer?

Quite honestly, volunteering really has changed my outlook on life.  It has given me the opportunity to learn so much about people.  I ‘work’ with people whose paths I would not have routinely crossed and I have certainly gained new skills through each new role I am appointed. Volunteering can land you in some very interesting situations. This has proved true for me, for example; I ended up in the England kit rooms at Twickenham Stadium with Charles Dance, and on this trip; being tweeted by Seb Coe and meeting the Prime Minister of Malta. It just goes to show you never quite know what might happen if you open yourself up to opportunities like this.

Most importantly however, without volunteers, many organisations and events, including the Special Olympics, simply would not exist.  If you could see the faces of these athletes that I see every day, filled with their individual hopes and dreams, you would know that their lives would be significantly poorer without such organisations.  So go out and find what is going on in your local area.  It doesn’t matter if you can only give up an hour a week – but be warned, it’s addictive!