Once 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, it was like he opened up. He made friends, and kids at school started talking to him where they hadn’t before.”
Robert, who was mentally disabled, died in 1992 of complications from a disease known as Marfan’s syndrome that attacked his heart. “I miss my brother, and I never put him out of my mind,” explains Lee. “The Special Olympics really fulfilled Robert’s life and were a great thing for him.”
But Robert’s memory lived on when the Special Olympics became a great thing for a group of LDS teenagers on the East Coast—Lee included.
Last summer, leaders of the New Haven and Hartford Stakes in Connecticut, and the Providence Rhode Island Stake, were planning to combine three youth conferences into one.
“The stakes were up for 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. But none of the ideas were even close to this.”
“This” was the more than 400 Latter-day Saint youth from the three stakes volunteering their services—ranging from cheerleading to working in concession stands—to the 7,000-plus athletes who gathered from 136 countries for the Special Olympics World Games held in and around New Haven. The youth conference theme was “Ye Are the Light of the World.” And they were.
“We really felt that we are like a candle and we can pass that light on to each other through caring and service to these athletes. You really can do that by just being a great example,” says Lee, who couldn’t have asked for a better scenario. The Special Olympics World Games were in his home state, and if there’s one thing Lee knows, it’s the Special Olympics.
Counting all the time he spent with Robert when his brother was competing, and then in 1994 when Lee was a Special Olympics volunteer for Connecticut’s state games, he understood what volunteering at the World Games involved. And he was able to watch other youth his age learn how much fun they could have through helping and serving the special-needs athletes during the three-day youth conference.
“I’m just really happy to see that all the kids here are really into this. They went up to the athletes and gave them hugs, gave them a high-five or whatever they needed,” says Lee.
Ben Johansen, a priest in the Trumbull (Connecticut) First Ward, agrees. “We had a lot of fun. We wanted to be here serving, and everything has been totally focused on serving. These athletes do the 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.”
At the track-and-field venue during the week-long competition, the LDS youth gathered near where the athletes entered the track, and took time to shake hands, give pats on the back, and offer general encouragement. The athletes’ smiles got even bigger when they were asked for their autographs.
“They’re just so happy when you smile or say congratulations to them. As soon as you start talking to them, they’re just so cheerful and talkative,” says Stephanie Perry.
That attitude rubbed off on the LDS youth too.
“At other youth conferences I’ve been to, we do service and then one of our leaders gets a letter of thanks and 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, who moved to Florida a couple of weeks after the Olympics ended. “You could see the excitement these kids had when we would shake their hands and give high-fives.”
Says Ben Stratford of the Trumbull First Ward, “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 youth gathered in the Yale Bowl, Yale University’s football stadium, with brooms in hand. Their job was to sweep up debris in preparation for the Games’ closing ceremonies. While he swept piles of garbage into bags, Lee 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 Yale Bowl 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.”
It wasn’t that Lee was ungrateful having to spend part of his youth conference cleaning up after others. It was just that he enjoyed interacting with the athletes more. When Lee was with the Special Olympians he saw real joy and happiness, especially when the athletes would smile at him.
And as Lee smiled back, he couldn’t help but think of Robert.
Julius Blackwelder, teachers quorum adviser in the Trumbull (Connecticut) First Ward, explained his plan to the quorum members in 1991. He wanted to form a sailing group that wouldn’t just be for the young men’s enjoyment. His vision was to have the youth gather each Friday during the summer at Jennings Beach on the Atlantic Ocean in nearby Fairfield for a day of catamaran sailing. And he wanted it to be a fellowshipping tool—a way to attract the less-active in the ward and the boys’ nonmember friends.
Everybody liked the idea, and the plan, along with the boats, was launched. They called themselves the Sea Rats.
“We start right at the beginning of June. Once school is over we start sailing,” says 17-year-old Aaron Blackwelder, Brother Blackwelder’s son. “We start at ten in the morning, set up the boats, and just go out and sail. We felt we had to be friends with the less-active members first, and this is a way to bring nonmember friends out and make friendships with less-active members.”
In the group’s five-year existence, the Sea Rats now count 50 kids from the New Haven Connecticut Stake who spend the day on the group’s four catamarans. The Sea Rats have a routine that rarely changes—unless a worldwide event rolls into town.
Last July, organizers of the Special Olympics World Games approached the Sea Rats and asked if they would donate the use of their boats for the Games’ sailing events being held at nearby Savin Rock.
“We said, ‘Sure, no problem. We’ll donate the boats,’” says Drew Brown, 17, “but we also told them we wanted to donate our services and work as safety officers for the Olympians.”
As safety officers, the Sea Rats served as dead weight—or ballast—on the boats they loaned. “We made sure [the Olympians] were safe, that they didn’t get dehydrated,” says Drew. “We got to help them out and make sure they didn’t get tangled in the line. Things like that.”
Adds Ryan Brown, Drew’s younger brother, “It was fun getting to know these athletes. They’re a little slower in doing things, but they’re a lot more trusting.”
That’s something Aaron understands. His older sister Liz has both physical and mental handicaps. “I’ve always grown up with a sister with some disabilities, and that’s normal for me. It’s helped me to have patience and to deal with people better,” he says.
After only a few hours at the beach with the Special Olympians, Victor Solis, a member of the Trumbull Spanish Branch, understood why the Sea Rats gave up, not only their boats, but their time for this one week.
“These athletes have a few setbacks, but they’re choice spirits and they’re special. They just can’t get everything to work like we can. Because you have been given much, like the hymn says, you, too, must give. We’re just giving back a little bit more because of all we have.”