Athlete Health Messenger Pays it Forward

June 12, 2024 Blog, Events, Featured, Press

From needing care to training care providers, Athlete Health Messenger program brings athlete voice to inclusive health focus. 

Back in February, we featured a story about an athlete who received much-needed dental care after visiting the Special Smiles program at the 2023 Fall Games. Dan is a Special Olympics Wisconsin (SOWI) athlete from La Crosse who received a free dental screening that revealed a need for significant follow-up care. As a result, Dan received dentures and a brand-new smile. But Dan also received something else: confidence. It was such a positive experience for Dan that he’s decided to pay it forward by inspiring others and becoming an athlete leader.

One of the steps in Dan’s leadership journey was becoming a SOWI Athlete Health Messenger. A Health Messenger is a Special Olympics athlete or unified partner who has been trained to serve as a health and wellness leader, educator, advocate, and role model within their Special Olympics communities and the community at large.

Upon completing the program, these athletes are equipped to share their knowledge with fellow athletes and make them better equipped to take an active role in their own physical and emotional well-being. Athlete Health Messengers also help present Inclusive Health Training with SOWI’s health staff to train medical professionals and students on how to better work with patients with intellectual disabilities (ID).

Dan put his training into practice by speaking to students at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse who are studying disciplines like physical therapy, nuclear medicine, and occupational therapy. This was a big step for Dan as he had never done any public speaking and was nervous.

“The first time was hard. I had never spoken in front of a class before, so I played with a fidget toy the whole time. But by the third class, I didn’t need it anymore, and I did pretty well,” he said.

Through Dan’s presentations, he was able to help the students understand how to better work with patients with ID by sharing his own experience.

“I told them how I cope with people who don’t know how to cope with me, and that helped them learn how to work with other people like me,” he said.

Dan also put his training to use by volunteering at Healthy Hearing at the Spring Games in Oshkosh, an experience he really enjoyed. Dan said his experience can help other athletes pursue leadership training.

“If I can do it, I feel like everyone else can do it. By showing people that even me—someone who didn’t like people and didn’t think I would ever talk in front of people—is coming forward, it shows other athletes that they can do it too. I’m enjoying leadership a lot more than I thought I would,” he said.

Dan hoped to volunteer again at the Summer Games in Whitewater, which comes as no surprise to his Program Director, Aimee Schmidt.

“Going through the Special Smiles experience was a first step for Dan. It gave him a lot of confidence and made him want to be a part of the leadership program,” she said.

“Dan was nominated by coaches to be a part of our leadership program, and I have seen him grow so much as a part of that. He told me at the beginning that he didn’t know why they chose him for the program, and he didn’t think he would like it, but now he is one of our top leaders.”

Dan’s leadership journey has inspired other athletes as well.

“That was the hope when we started the leadership program here in La Crosse,” said Aimee. “Dan is willing to do anything and help out anywhere. I have two athletes that I provide supportive home care for, and Dan has really bonded with them. They don’t trust a lot of people, but they trust him, and clearly, he is seen as a leader to them.”

Aimee said there is an influx of younger athletes coming into their program, and Dan is like a big brother to them.

“We have a lot of athletes that want to do athlete training, and seeing athletes like Dan step up is truly inspiring.”

Five athletes in the La Crosse program, including Dan, chose to go through Athlete Health Messenger Training, and Aimee has been thrilled to see athletes get excited about Special Olympics and everything it has to offer them beyond sports.

“They’ve seen one side of Special Olympics as athletes, and now they get to see a different side of it. People want a purpose and to feel like they’re making a difference. Athlete leadership training make that possible.”

Organizations can learn more about and request Inclusive Health trainings via this online form.

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