Special Olympics bring joy to volunteer

Saturday, May 31, 2014 | 11:35 p.m. CDT
Jan Stephens, seated right, assists an attendee of the Special Olympics Missouri State Summer Games bowling competition on Saturday. She has been a volunteer with Special Olympics Missouri for 28 years.

COLUMBIA — For Jan Stephens, joy is contagious. It is a feeling meant to be shared with close friends and new acquaintances.

Stephens has volunteered for Special Olympics Missouri for 28 years. A mother, coach and agency coordinator, she dedicates hours of her life for one reason: joy.

Stephens was first inspired to get involved with Special Olympics when she took her then 7-year-old son, Larry, to a track for the first time.

“He took off running, and he didn’t stop,” she said. “He just kept going. I took off after him.”

Stephens said, at that point, she knew she needed to help her son, to share in his joy by being a part of his experience.

And Larry’s success got the rest of the family involved. 

“In ’99, he was chosen to go to North Carolina for the World Games,” Stephens said.  “My husband got involved, my daughter got involved, my nephews got involved. It was like the whole family was part of Special Olympics.”

Larry Stephens, now 35, is a multi-sport athlete. He bowls and swims, and he plays basketball, volleyball and bocce.

And that’s just in the present.

He earned gold and bronze medals at the 1999 Special Olympics World Games in aquatics. He will participate in volleyball at the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games in New Jersey in June.

Larry also has an intellectual disability.

“The great thing about Special Olympics is, you ask him, ‘Larry, do you have a problem?’

“‘Yeah, I’m autistic!’ He’ll flat tell you,” Stephens said of her son, laughing. “We’ve never put it as a handicap.”

Stephens, 64, spends much of her retirement handling a full plate of volunteer duties.

She works in the Missouri State Special Olympics office four days a week, entering athletes’ physicals — upward of 4,000 each year — into the central management system. She coaches multiple sports, handles uniforms and coordinates fundraisers — the organization relies heavily on donations as a non-profit. Stephens also stores equipment.

“I’ve got footballs, basketballs, volleyballs, bocce balls,” she said. “You name it, my garage is filled with it.”

For the 2014 state games, Stephens is serving as a volunteer manager for the bowling competition. She said close to 100 volunteers were expected to help her.

She added that there are several jobs to be filled — lunch volunteers, awards volunteers and lane assignment volunteers — and that the volunteers usually feel the same joy Stephens first experienced.  

“You come once, there’s never once,” Stephens said. “Twice, three times, four, ... you just keep coming back. Because you feel the same thing the athletes feel as a volunteer. You see the smiles, you see their excitement.”

This story was written by one of 11 students participating in the Sports Journalism Institute, hosted by MU. This is the 22nd class for the Institute, designed to provide minority and female students with a start in the sports journalism industry. This is SJI's third year at Missouri.

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