There are more 11,000 Special Olympics athletes across Virginia, participating in a wide variety of sports. The organization holds championships in 13 sports: speed skating, basketball, soccer, track, swimming, bowling, softball, tennis, powerlifting, volleyball, roller skating, golf, and bocce. Special Olympics events occur year round in large and small communities across the state. Even the organization's fundraising levels have reached new heights, despite the lackluster economy in recent years.
"It's great to come to work every day and be probably the least important person here, and I mean that in all sincerity. We have great people who work on this staff. We have great people who are the athletes in this program. We have great volunteers in this program, and we have great people who support us in a number of ways whether it be their business, their time, or their funds. All I'm trying to do is get them all together."
RICK JEFFREY '75 Non-profit leader
Jeffrey has been involved in athletics since his youth. He was recruited to play basketball at Hampden-Sydney College and did so for three years. After graduating, he coached high school athletics and began refereeing high school and college basketball. It was then, hanging out with other referees between games at a basketball tournament, when he met a guy who worked for Special Olympics Virginia. "What a great organization," he recalls saying. Then he added a flip remark: "Got any openings?" Just a few months later, Jeffrey, who had been teaching and coaching for years and was on track to enter high school administration in Henrico County, was at the dawn of his 25-year career with Special Olympics Virginia.
"The thing we do best at Special Olympics is bring people together, people with disabilities and people without, because the program is not just for our athletes. The program is for everybody, because we need to change the attitudes of the general public about the competencies of people with a disability or, maybe if they think broader, about the competencies of people who are different from them, whether they are different racially, socioeconomically, have a different religion. There are a lot of things that divide people. Having a disability is one of those."
Not only does Special Olympics Virginia bring people together through athletic competition, but also through events such as the successful fundraising event called "Polar Plunge." Jeffrey says athletes come from around the state to jump into the frigid ocean waters alongside thousands of people who have raised pledges to take part in the event. "We hold it on the first weekend in February in Virginia Beach. People from around the state, Special Olympics athletes as well as everyday people who want to be involved, come down. Last year we raised a million dollars in one day when 3,500 people jumped into the ocean."
Jeffrey notes that many Hampden-Sydney alumni are supporters of Special Olympics and he has enjoyed getting to know other Tigers. "We partnered with the Hampden-Sydney alumni group in Virginia Beach to do a showing of the Shorty documentary years ago. Scott Sims '60 brought his brother Walter down for the showing, which was at the Pavilion at the beach. Walter Bortz was the president of Hampden-Sydney at the time and he came down. A few people spoke, we showed the film, and had a reception; it was create because I got to meet a lot of Hampden-Sydney guys I didn't already know, like the event organizers Johnny Ellis '70, Bobby Bray '60, and Jack Drescher '70."
"Like Hampden-Sydney, Special Olympics is a community. The main community for someone with intellectual disabilities has is his or her family. When they step outside that community, there is very little for a person with intellectual disabilities. Most people are discounting them, rejecting them. There are still a lot of people that don't want a group home in the neighborhood because they think there is a danger. They don't want a Down syndrome person in the classroom with their child because they think it will be a distraction. It's a very tough world out there for people with intellectual disabilities. So, the community of their family is pretty much all they have. When they step outside that community, we offer a huge community for them. We are a community of athletes, coaches, volunteers, donors, fans, a wide variety of people. When people ask what we are trying to do here at Special Olympics, we tell them that we are trying to build a bigger and bigger community."
Rick Jeffrey ’75 (at left) with Jon Fried, the number-one Special Olympics tennis player in the world, and Chris Raupp at an exhibition match in the John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville.
"I think one of the reasons Walter Simms has really flourished is because of what Hampden-Sydney has done for him-and I'm sure many people would say Walter Simms has done more for us than we've done for him-because the College has done what we at Special Olympics Virginia do, which is create an environment that is welcoming to people reaching their potential and making the contribution to the community. Hampden-Sydney is a community, not only of the people who are there now but also the people who have been there and come back or stayed connected."
Jeffrey was recruited to play basketball but didn't start playing for the Tigers until his sophomore year. "I was at Hampden-Sydney at an interesting time. I was there in the late 60s and early 70s, which was a time of a lot of unrest amongst young people on college campuses in the United States. We certainly did our share at Hampden-Sydney, although it was in a respectful, Hampden-Sydney way. We had self-determination and anti-war protests. During my four years, the college was probably at its height of liberalism, if anybody could ever say Hampden-Sydney was at a height of liberalism. I had some great professors, particularly George Bagby and Larry Martin. They would probably laugh if they knew I was a high school English teacher."
Because basketball is part of his background, Jeffrey enjoys watching Special Olympics athletes play the game, and it is the most popular team sport. Another popular team sport is softball, which is offered in a "unified" style in which the teams are half Special Olympics athletes and half non-disabled partners. "Unified sports are very popular among our athletes. They tell us they like it because they get to play with people who aren't Special Olympics athletes and they love it because they are teammates; they are friends. The relationships they make on unified teams-at some point-are no longer about Special Olympics. It goes beyond 'they're helping me' to 'we're teammates'."
"I remember people I played with and placed that we went. We used to go up to VMI every year; we used to play them in 'The Pit.' It's one of the worst experiences in your life if you've ever played VMI in The Pit. I remember the people and places and experiences but I couldn't tell you how many games we won or lost or the scores of any of them. To me, sports is about people; it's about relationships and that's what we try to do at Special Olympics-to build relationships."
Jeffrey would not be the president of the organization if he were not always encouraging more people to participate. He says, "Special Olympics is fun. Many people think, 'I could never go to a Special Olympics event. It's so sad.' Then they come to a Special Olympics event and realize, that it's not sad. It wasn't anything other than a positive, happy, fun experience. The athletes came out and they weren't looking for you to feel sorry for them. They weren't looking for you to have pity on them. What they were looking for was some equity. They were looking for you to treat them in an equitable fashion like you would treat everyone else. Some of our athletes articulate it very well and they say, 'We just want to be treated like everybody else'."
Jeffrey cites Grace Anne Braxton of Fredericksburg. She is the number one female Special Olympics golfer in the world. As an amateur golfer with a 14 handicap, she played in the women's state amateur tournament at Kingsmill Golf Course recently. "This was not a Special Olympics event. She played in the Women's Amateur, the most hotly contested women's event in the state. She would tell you that competing was a lot of fun, but the most fun thing about it was that no one cut her any slack in that tournament. No one did anything special for her. They didn't look out for her. They didn't look after her. They were just trying to beat her just like everyone else was. Grace Anne didn't want to go down there and just be a mascot at the tournament and she wanted to go down and play in the tournament. She did not finish last; she was in the middle of the pack in her division."
"It's great to come to work every day and be probably the least important person here, and I mean that in all sincerity. We have great people who work on this staff. We have great people who are the athletes in this program. We have great volunteers in this program, and we have great people who support us in a number of ways whether it be their business, their time, or their funds. All I'm trying to do is get them all together. That's what I do: I try to bring people together."