Hearts of Gold

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5/25/2009

For a few moments, Matt Carpenter literally disappeared into the mountains of Idaho. Suddenly he burst into sight, hurtling downward and showcasing his ever-improving skiing talent.

“I skied in the fog. It was 10 to 15 degrees — very windy, very chilly. But I felt really happy,” recalled Carpenter, who competed in three Alpine skiing events at the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Boise Feb. 6-13. He came away with two silver medals and one bronze, despite hailing from a warm-weather climate and being only a three-year veteran of the slopes.

Back in central North Carolina, members of Dr. John Carr Monk Council 7259 in Newton Grove were surely smiling at the news of Carpenter’s success.

These Knights have gotten to know the 25-year-old athlete from nearby Clayton quite well. Council members not only support Special Olympics as volunteers and donors, but also include Carpenter and his fellow athletes in their annual fund drive for people with intellectual disabilities.

Carpenter was born with a chromosomal defect known as Fragile X Syndrome, a genetic condition marked by intellectual disability and speech difficulty. His mother, Jill Carpenter, explained that while some “people don’t know how to act around the athletes,” the Knights interact freely with her son and his Special Olympics companions.

“They’re so kind and thoughtful,” she added.

Council 7259’s efforts typify the massive Orderwide support for programs assisting people with intellectual and physical disabilities — the leading category for K of C donations and voluntary service. Over the past four decades, the Order has raised and donated more than $382 million to such programs.

Yet, it’s the physical presence that matters most of all, according to Timothy P. Shriver, chairman of Special Olympics. “The Knights of Columbus are right in there, rolling up their sleeves,” he said. “The money is important, but it means very little without the relationships. If we don’t have the person-to-person relationships, we will fail.”

‘CHANGING LIVES TOGETHER’ Back to Top

In 2005, nearly 25 percent of all councils and more than 55,000 Knights in the United States and Canada reported volunteering with Special Olympics. That year saw the beginning of a four-year (2005-2008) K of C partnership that committed $250,000 annually to grow Special Olympics in North America and other parts of the world, while pledging even more volunteers for state and local games. Earlier this year, the K of C board of directors voted to renew the Order’s partnership over the next four years.

Knights and their family members also serve as trainers, coaches, officials, timekeepers, huggers and cheerleaders. They provide uniforms, assist with transportation costs, and stage send-off and welcome-home parties. Just a few of the recent examples of this generosity include:

• Cardinal Bernardin Council 12263 in Bluffton, S.C., provided most of the volunteers for the Special Olympics regional track and field event April 24 at Hilton Head High School. According to council member Bill Jaillet, the Knights also ran a Special Olympics bowling tournament that raised $5,000. The council provided numerous volunteers for bowling as well as a road-race fundraiser and Special Olympics tennis competition.

“Our brothers love helping the athletes. It gives you a special feeling to see a contestant with multiple handicaps knock down some pins, hit a ball over the net or finish a race,” Jaillet said. “The look on their face lights up the world, and their hugs fill you with a knowledge that God loves all of us.”

• Also in South Carolina, Rev. Thomas Tierney Council 6884 in Seneca has assisted for 11 years at the regional Special Olympics at Clemson University — including a competition April 24 — while also donating several thousand dollars toward operational costs. Council members Jack Concannon and Donald Ricken noted that Knights provide free lunch to all the athletes, volunteers and attendees.

Ricken added that the Knights work closely with Special Olympics athletes “to help them improve the quality of their lives, to help them be a part of the community they live in and, most of all, to give them pride in what they are able to accomplish.”

• In Texas, members of the Tony Rangel Knights of Columbus Insurance Agency in Houston have cooked and served lunch at the regional Special Olympics basketball tournament for the past 12 years. Agents, their families and Knights from several area councils annually provide hamburgers and hot dogs for more than 650 athletes, coaches and spectators.

• Seattle (Wash.) Council 676 served up hot food and refreshments to participants in the state’s Special Olympics Polar Plunge Jan. 31. The Knights accommodated more than 100 participants, who raised $15,000 for Special Olympics.

• In southern Illinois, Tri-Cities Council 1098 in Granite City recently held its annual Special Olympics dinner-dance. Knights served more than 350 athletes and their guests.

“State and local council members can be found at virtually all events providing medals, serving food, helping with set-up and countless other volunteer jobs,” said Doug Snyder, director of Special Olympics Illinois.

Snyder’s organization, with the assistance of the Illinois State Council, has produced a poignant 11-minute video, “Knights of Columbus and Special Olympics: Changing Lives Together” that features Shriver and Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson. The video was released last year as part of Special Olympics’ 40th anniversary.

• And at the World Games in Boise earlier this year, Knights volunteered on the slopes and made a splash with their full regalia during the ceremonial torch run, which involved Fourth Degree members from eight cities.

“The Games were an incredible success, and there was a very obvious Knights of Columbus presence, particularly at the torch run,” said District Master Chuck Davlin, who coordinated the Knights’ involvement. “I was really pleased with our participation.”

LONGTIME SUPPORT Back to Top

The K of C visibility extends back to the very first International Special Olympics Summer Games, staged at Chicago’s Soldier Field on July 20, 1968. Numerous Knights assisted at the inaugural event, which was conceived and executed by Timothy Shriver’s parents, Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Robert Sargent Shriver, who is a member of Mater Dei Council 9774 in Rockville, Md.

The Shrivers launched Special Olympics based on their belief that the special-needs population deserved to be treated with dignity and not indifference, and that through sports their abilities — not their disabilities — would take center stage. Timothy Shriver contended that his parents’ efforts marked a complete reversal of societal attitudes up to that point, acknowledging that the Order took a risk by being involved.

“The Knights, they’ve never been afraid,” he said.

Approximately 1,000 athletes from throughout the United States and Canada took part in the 1968 Games. Since then, Special Olympics has become a true global movement, with some 3 million male and female athletes in 180 countries competing in more than 30 Olympic-type sports.

The World Games, which are held every two years and alternate between summer and winter, comprise one of the largest sporting events in the world. The recent Winter Games in Boise drew close to 3,000 participants from 100 countries. The 2011 Summer Games will take place in Athens, Greece.

This growth has occurred thanks in no small part to the Knights. In fact, Eunice Kennedy Shriver famously stated in 1987, “I don’t think there’s any organization in the country that has given so much in personal help and in financial support to Special Olympics.”

That year, the Order provided nearly one-third of the 15,000 volunteers for the International Special Olympics Summer Games at the University of Notre Dame. The Order also made a $250,000 donation, marking the first of several major financial commitments for the worldwide games.

In 1995, the Knights contributed $1 million to Special Olympics, as the World Summer Games were held in the Order’s hometown of New Haven, Conn. Knights from across Connecti-cut and nearby states provided 7,000 volunteers as well as a number of social and cultural events for competitors. More recently, in 2003, the Order provided $1 million to send Team USA, Team Canada and Team Mexico to the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Ireland.

How have the Knights come to believe so strongly in this program? A simple eyewitness account of a Special Olympics event is usually all it takes. There, one quickly sees the embodiment of the Special Olympics motto, “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

“The athletes are such a gift,” said Joe Jeronimo of St. Joseph Council 6361 in Bowmanville, Ont. “They are a reminder of what we can accomplish if we give it our best. They never seem to give up, despite their adversity. You watch them and you should be inspired.”

Jeronimo’s council, along with two others from the area — St. Jude Council 6052 and St. Gregory Council 2671 — raised $15,000 last year in support of Special Olympics through a longtime cable-television bingo game they operate to raise charitable funds.

Sacred Heart Council 12537 in Southport, N.C., regularly volunteers during the Brunswick County Special Olympics, which was held April 25. Mike Samide explained that Knights provide t-shirts and refreshments to athletes, serve as timekeepers, and push wheelchair-race participants. He added that the council expects to raise more than $30,000 this year for people with special needs.

Samide said he has witnessed some athletes push themselves to the limit. “There are some kids, it takes them forever to get to the finish line. But you know what? It doesn’t matter,” he explained. “They get to the [award] presentation line with everybody else. They competed.”

He added that K of C manpower is plentiful not only based on the Order’s belief in the intrinsic value of each human being, but also because being with the participants is simply a great time: “It’s fun to watch them. They compete against each other, but they support each other so much. It’s a neat thing.”

ACHIEVING DREAMS Back to Top

As happy as he is with the Knights’ constant support of Special Olympics, Shriver contended that school and governmental leaders have a long way to go toward fully accepting people with disabilities the way his famous family did in the late 1960s. “It’s still a challenge today,” he said.

Perhaps more people would get on board with Shriver’s cause if they knew how significantly Special Olympics has changed the lives of people like Matt Carpenter.

“Matt was so shy when he was little. He never wanted to have a birthday party because it would have drawn attention to him. That is almost all gone now,” Jill Carpenter said. “He’s got a lot of confidence. … He has tried so many sports and stuck with them.”

Matt began competing in Special Olympics after moving with his family from New Jersey to North Carolina in 2001. Among his favorite activities are basketball, bowling, golf, tennis, volleyball, and track and field.

“I like doing everything I can do. I work very hard for it,” Matt said, adding that his current goal is “to get better at golf.”

He has also made important social connections through Special Olympics, saying, “I know all these great athletes and play all these great games.” That was especially true in Idaho, where his best memories are of “all the great fans and all the cowbells ringing.”

Carpenter’s proud family was part of that appreciative crowd. Though the day was foggy, it was very clear to Jill how important his medal-winning accomplishments were, especially based on the feverish work he put in to master the difficult sport of skiing.

“He would fall, and fall, and fall, and fall. Only through his own determination did he say ‘I am going to do this.’ I just think of how much courage he needed to do that,” she said. “I really didn’t know he was capable of all that. If you have children with disabilities you have so many aspirations for them, and then you learn to adjust your expectations. And then, when they go beyond that, it’s like a dam broke.

“It was just joyous to watch him come down that mountain.”

Mike Latona, a staff writer for The Catholic Courier in the Diocese of Rochester, is a member of Our Lady of the Cenacle Council 3892 in Greece, N.Y. He is currently co-authoring a book titled J-Mac’s Miracle, about the autistic high school basketball team manager who famously scored 20 points at the end of a game in 2006.