Whenever Robert Norton got on a bike, he was a whole new person.
“Robert would go outside at eight in the morning and ride his bike in our driveway until ten at night. He got so good at it that he was the fastest Special Olympics cyclist in Connecticut,” says his younger brother Lee. “Before he got involved in Special Olympics, Robert was a loner. But when he came to Special Olympics, he opened up. He made friends, and kids at school started talking to him, though they hadn’t before.”
For nearly 30 years, the Special Olympics has been helping athletes with disabilities compete with one another on local, national, and international levels. Robert, who was mentally disabled, competed in many Special Olympics before he died in 1992. “I miss my brother, and I never put him out of my mind,” explains Lee. “The Special Olympics really fulfilled Robert’s life and was a great thing for him.”
Robert’s memory lived on when the Special Olympics became a great thing for a group of Latter-day Saint teenagers, too—including Lee.
During the summer of 1995, leaders of three stakes in the United States—in Connecticut and Rhode Island—were planning to combine three youth conferences into one. “The stake leaders were interested in youth conference ideas, and they asked kids what they felt like doing,” recalls Lee, 15, a teacher in the New Haven Stake’s Newtown Ward. “We talked about doing community service—you know, gardening and stuff like that.”
Then came the suggestion to help at the Ninth Special Olympic World Games, to be held in and around New Haven, Connecticut. The idea was met with great enthusiasm, and it wasn’t long before more than 400 Latter-day Saint youth from the three stakes were signed up as volunteers.
The youth conference theme was “Ye Are the Light of the World.” And the LDS teens were just that. They served in a wide range of ways—from cheerleading to working in concession stands. “We really felt that we were like a candle and we could pass that light on to each other through caring about and serving these athletes. You really can do that by just being a great example,” says Lee, who couldn’t have asked for a better way to serve. The competitions were in his home state, and if there’s one thing Lee knows, it’s the Special Olympics.
Because of all the time he spent when his brother Robert was competing, and then in 1994 when Lee was a Special Olympics volunteer for Connecticut’s state games, Lee understood what volunteering at the World Games would involve. And he was able to watch other youth his age learn how much fun they could have through helping and serving special-needs athletes.
“I was really happy to see that all the kids were totally involved. They went up to the athletes and gave them hugs, high-fives, or whatever they needed,” says Lee.
Ben Johansen agrees. “We had a lot of fun. We wanted to serve, and everything was totally focused on serving. These athletes do their best with the abilities they’ve been given. I’ve learned that the winners in this life are the ones who do the most with what they have, not who crosses the finish line first.”
The first International Special Olympics was held in July 1968 in Chicago, Illinois. It involved 1,000 Special Olympians from Canada and the United States. It has grown to include more than 7,000 athletes from about 140 countries and to involve 45,000 volunteers. In 1993, for the first time, the winter Special Olympics were held outside North America, in Austria. European summer Special Olympics have been held in Belgium and Scotland.
At 1995’s track-and-field venue in Connecticut, the LDS youths gathered near where the athletes entered the track and shook hands, gave pats on the back, and offered encouragement. The athletes’ smiles got even bigger when their LDS helpers asked for their autographs.
“They are really happy when you smile or say congratulations to them. As soon as you start talking to them, they become cheerful and talkative,” says Stephanie Perry.
That attitude rubbed off on the LDS volunteers, too.
“At other youth conferences I’ve been to, we do service, and then one of our leaders gets a letter of thanks. Half the people who worked on the project don’t even realize what we did was appreciated. It’s so much better being interactive,” says Merilee Hales. “You could see the excitement these kids had when we would shake their hands and give high-fives.”
Says Ben Stratford, “The best thing about it was the time we spent with the Special Olympians and the example they provided for me.”
On a brutally hot day in New Haven, many of the young men and young women gathered in Yale University’s football stadium with brooms in hand. Their job was to sweep up debris in preparation for the Games’ closing ceremonies. While Lee swept piles of garbage into bags, he stopped to consider what they had been doing during their three days of service.
“Sweeping is just manual work. After you’re done sweeping, the stadium is not going to remember you sweeping it,” he says. “But these athletes will remember you. They’ll remember us. That’s what really means a lot to me. And I will remember them.”
When Lee was interacting with the Special Olympians, he had seen real joy and happiness, especially when the athletes would smile at him.
And as Lee smiled back, he couldn’t help but think of his brother Robert.