Los Angeles was the most recent host of the Special Olympics World Games and I was lucky enough to have been a Volunteer and selected to be a part of the Media Operations Team as a Steward. My assignment was for the 1st day of the games when they conduct their Divisioning round at the Table Tennis event. I worked with several other volunteers sharing the same post and we connected immediately. It was a fun, exciting, upbeat atmosphere and we didn't find out until later that our event was one of few that had a DJ playing music the entire day which only added to the spirit and energy.
I sat at the bottom of the viewing stands meeting not just other volunteers, but athletes, coaches and delegates from around the world. I observed the athletes/kids, despite their various challenges, acting just like any other no matter which country they were from. It struck me how amazing that is to see them tease each other, be competitive also sharing in each others joy when winning or consolation when not moving ahead in the event. I observed many other inspirational moments that day.
A young guy in his 20's named Sergei from Sochi, Russia flew here to be a volunteer for the week. He caught the "bug" when he volunteered for the Summer Olympics and Paralympics in his hometown a few years ago and shortly thereafter signing up for the Special Olympics World Games planning his first trip to America. We talked for about a 1/2 hour sharing our life stories with his English being excellent. I was so impressed by him, his spirit of adventure and interest in giving back at such a young age and honored to have had that time getting to know him.
That day I took a lot of pictures for the purpose of not only posting them on social media and raising awareness for the Games that week but so I wouldn't forget a moment of my experience. My volunteer partner had stepped away for a few minutes so I was left alone to people watch. Because of the Divisioning round scheduled that day it was a less formal atmosphere for the athletes and many of them sat in the stands instead of their designated space which was further away from the competition area. I turned around to observe a very sweet gesture between the athletes from Pakistan and Hong Kong neither of which shared a common language. They were digging into their backpacks for pins from their country and exchanging them. I waited until they were done and then asked if I could take a group picture for which they then posed. A few minutes later I was approached by one of the Hong Kong athletes and presented with one of their country's pins. I was so touched and said thank you several times noticing that she was bowing to me so I did the same in return hoping I was being respectful. This nearly brought me to tears and I turned away thinking about the experience wanting to remember that moment for a long time.
Several days prior to the start of the Games many towns in the Los Angeles area were chosen as Host Towns and assigned country's in which they would act as their ambassadors showing the athletes and delegates the local sites and culture. Two women from the Pakistani delegation started to chat with me and my fellow volunteer. We asked how they were enjoying LA and who their host town was telling us it was La Verne. Their faces beamed with smiles as they described the hospitality shown them and what a great time they all had. One described the experience as "Feeling it was a home away from home". I couldn't get those words out of my head and was so proud that the true spirit of Americans comes through when it matters most.
A little bit later after a 3rd volunteer joined our post a delegate from Ireland approached our table with a question (as did many others that day) and we struck up a conversation with her. I shared having previously traveled with my mother to her country and how much I loved it there hoping to return someday to see more of it. Just as she was about to leave she dug into her official fanny pack (one that we all received as part of our World Games uniform) and presented each of us with her country's pin. This was my 2nd on a day I didn't even consider getting one. I proudly pinned it to my credentials along with the other. My fellow volunteers promised to reciprocate with a US pin once they acquired one as they would be there for the entire week.
It was very fulfilling and I am thankful to have been a part of such an important event. As I met the athletes who live with their various challenges yet go on with life as usual it got me thinking. Each one of us has a different story to tell and our own challenges that we face, some being so much more difficult than others. It is how we face them that really matters and how we choose to let if affect our lives and the outlook we have going forward.
My awesome fellow Volunteers on each side of me.