Athlete Health Messengers Advocate for Inclusive Health

May 31, 2023 Blog, Featured, Press

Special Olympics Wisconsin Athlete Health Messengers representing all corners of the state toured with SOWI President & CEO Chad Hershner to numerous budget hearing sessions across the Badger State this spring, advocating for inclusive health programming.

A component of Global Messenger Training, which equips athletes with tools for self-advocacy and helps athletes truly find their voice, Athlete Health Messenger training tailors these same tactics in the scope of health and wellness.

As Special Olympics Wisconsin continues to provide integral health screenings and follow-up care, it is important to see first-hand how the efforts of our community partners and the funding and resources they provide truly change lives.

Following are the stories of these Athlete Health Messengers, as read aloud at the listening sessions.

Note: As these were speaking points for many of our Athlete Health Messengers, only minor spelling or grammar enhancements may have been added for clarity.

Governor’s Budget Listening Session – Superior

Yellow Jacket Student Union
University of Wisconsin-Superior
January 17, 2023

Justin Esala, Ashland (3-12 Chequamegon Bay)

Being involved with Special Olympics for the last 12 years has made me a healthier, happier more confident Wisconsin Citizen.

Before I started Special Olympics, I was an extremely shy person who had a hard time making friends – in fact it was hard for me to make eye contact. I spent most of my time in a Special Ed classroom.  Now, after being in Special Olympics for 12 years, I had the confidence to go to college and get my associates degree in accounting in May 2022.

After graduating, I went on to work for a company in their accounting dept. I worked for them for 21 months during which time, I heard the r-word from management and co-workers more than 8 times.

Because Special Olympics taught me about inclusion, I had the confidence to stand up to my work and eventually leave my job knowing there were places I could work where I would be accepted. Our school had been participating in the Special Olympics Spread the word to end the word campaigns and I learned about advocacy.  Now, I’m going back to school to study computer science.

A story about helping my mom at the mall – when she fell, we needed to call 911. When I was young and before Special Olympics, I wouldn’t have been able to talk on the phone.  Because of the confidence I got from SOWI, I was able to stay on the phone and spoke through the whole call.

I go through Healthy Athletes every time I attend a Special Olympics event. I have gone through Opening Eyes and received free glasses.

Special Olympics helps my emotional wellbeing.

My teammates are all my friends and do fun activities outside of SOWI. We go bowling a couple times a month.  Genuine friendships.

During covid, there were weeks when we were locked in, so having genuine friends makes all the difference. We connected virtually during covid and also started downhill skiing in 2020.

Athlete leadership classes have been inclusive and I learned a lot. I took different SOWI virtual classes like: Introduction to Athlete Leadership, Understanding Leadership and Global Messenger (public speaking).  These were inclusive workshops where I met athletes from around the state and learned about leadership.  Amazing to connect with each other.

Taking an 8 week, virtual Special Olympics Athlete Health Messenger class to learn about nutrition, hydration, physical activity and emotional well being.

Special Olympics helps my teammates who may not drive or have transportation access activities. Our Special Olympics coaches drive many athletes to swimming and bowling which are out of town.  Without Special Olympics, they would not have access to these healthy activities.

Katelynn Robinson, Ashland (3-12 Chequamegon Bay)

I participate in Special Olympics Sports year-round in swimming, basketball, downhill skiing. It keeps me in good shape.

I swam at Special Olympics USA Games in New Jersey in 2014 and Florida in 2022.

To prepare for the games, we practice swimming three days a week for the 2 months before the games.

I was in the best shape of my life when I went to Florida to compete in swimming.

I’ve been married since 2017 and my husband and I do Special Olympics activities together. Keeps us healthy and connected.

Kyle Robinson, Ashland (3-12 Chequamegon Bay)

I’m a good athlete and participating in Special Olympics sports keep me physically healthy and gives me access to opportunities that keep my happy.

I participate in year-round sports – downhill skiing, track, basketball and powerlifting.

Practice keeps me off the couch and in good shape.

Competitions take me all over the world – Austria (downhill skiing) and Seattle (track). I travel to these competitions with my team.

I go through Healthy Athletes at Special Olympics events like Special Smiles. I get my teeth checked and get free toothbrush and toothpaste.

Joint Finance Committee Member Sessions – Madison

Wisconsin State Capitol
March & April, 2023

Jaime Jenks, Sun Prairie (4-04 Dodge County)

Do you know that isolation can be as damaging to your health as smoking or diabetes?

I have had many health problems throughout my life, but the pain from isolation has caused as much damage to my health as my Cerebral Palsy and other physical health issues. The isolation comes from not having any friends in school, not being able to find employment in my field of study, and simply not being respected for who I am.

My name is Jaime Jenks. I live in Sun Prairie and I have been an athlete in Special Olympics for many years in basketball, bowling, track, cornhole and bocce. I’m right in the middle of our basketball March Madness and in 2022 I attended the USA Games in Florida for bocce.

However, I’m here today as an athlete leader and proud member of the staff for Special Olympics Wisconsin where I work as an Office Assistant.

Many people are surprised to learn that Special Olympics Wisconsin does more than just sports. Since 2017, Special Olympics Wisconsin has trained 270 athlete leaders, not only to lead within our movement, but also to share our stories in the community as I am doing with you. For me, the benefit has been an increase in self-confidence and self-respect, as well as solid employment.  I have found my voice and I feel like I’m helping others.  All of this leads to me having better health.

One of the leadership workshops that I just completed was an 8-week Athlete Health Messenger class where we learned about health disparities for people with disabilities, along with education on nutrition, hydration, physical exercise and managing stress. All of these topics not only help me with my own health, but will also help me with my recent certification as an athlete coach.

Another key thing I learned was more about our Special Olympics Healthy Athletes program. Unfortunately, in my earlier years as an athlete, I didn’t know about these programs. That is part of why we need more money, to help us spread the word and to offer these services at more of our events.

Now that I know about them, I will be using them for multiple health issues:

One, is Opening Eyes – I am legally blind in one eye. Getting free sports goggles will help me during my competition.

Two, is Special Smiles – as a result of medications for my CP when I was young, all my teeth rotted and I had to have them pulled in 2019. I wear dentures, but I can still visit Special Smiles because they also check dentures.

Three, is Health Promotion – I had to wear a back brace in middle school. My CP, scoliosis and degenerative disc issues still cause me pain. Health promotions teaches overall body wellness.

Four, is Strong Minds – Strong minds helps people with anxiety and depression like me, by teaching us coping techniques such as stretching, breathing exercises and positive thoughts.

Last, but not least, the biggest benefit to being in Special Olympics is the friendships and leadership opportunities. My husband and I compete together and I absolutely love my teammates from USA Games. We call ourselves the three amigos!

I told you at the beginning the effects of isolation on our health. I will leave you with the positive news from a recent study that people with Intellectual Disabilities who participate in Special Olympics are 49% less likely to have depression. This data supports why I feel better when I participate in Special Olympics – as an athlete, leader and staff member.

Joint Finance Committee Listening Session – Waukesha

Waukesha County Expo Center
April 5, 2023

Brittany Wilson, Milwaukee (8-42 Team Milwaukee)

My name is Brittany Wilson, I live in Milwaukee, WI and I am a Special Olympics Athlete. I have been involved with Special Olympics for the past 6 years, and the sports I play are: Basketball, Soccer, Track & Field, Bocce & volleyball.

Special Olympics Wisconsin has helped me make new friends, and taught me about the meaning of leadership and sportsmanship. I understand that everyone has a talent and Special Olympics has given me an opportunity to share mine, while at the same time helping me improve my health.

Many people are surprised to learn that Special Olympics Wisconsin does more than just sports. They also help keep athletes healthy by providing free health screenings at tournaments. I have high blood pressure and I’m pre-diabetic.  Through Special Olympics sports and strength training, I have lost 66 pounds in the last three years.

As a result of my weight loss, I have more energy, less pain and overall more self-confidence.

Recently, I completed the Special Olympics Athlete Health Messenger class.  I learned more about nutrition, hydration and physical fitness and how it can affect my mental health.  Taking this class taught me how to control my food portions and how to moderate my junk food intake.

My personal health journey combined with this health education helps me be a better leader and enables me to share my gifts and help others create a path of their own.

Through inclusive health we all stay healthier.

Tyler Derringer, Milwaukee (8-14 West Allis)

My name is Tyler Derringer. I live in Milwaukee Wisconsin and I’ve been a Special Olympics Wisconsin Athlete for 29 years.I have had a lot of health issues over the years and thanks to Special Olympics Wisconsin, I am healthier now and more active.

Joint Finance Committee Listening Session – Eau Claire

Davies Student Center
University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

April 11, 2023

Danny Cox, Menomonie (3-25 Menomonie Red Cedar)

My name is Danny Cox and I live and work in Eau Claire.  I am 33 years old and I have been participating in Special Olympics Wisconsin for 13 years.  I consider my involvement in Special Olympics as one of the most important things I do to keep myself healthy and connected to my community.

When I was born, I was diagnosed with a hole in my heart and a cleft palate.  At a young age, I was also diagnosed with asthma.  Now, I wear glasses and hearing aids.

Thankfully, Special Olympics helps me with all my health issues. It keep me physically fit through sports, but that’s not all.  Their Healthy Athletes programs provide me with regular free health screenings and their leadership programs have helped me with my social and emotional wellbeing.

During state competitions, they test my vision and hearing and I receive free glasses and sports goggles. They also clean and repair my hearing aids.  This is all at no cost to me or any other athlete.

I have attended many leadership classes including Health Messenger. As a result, I am walking at the mall twice a week and drinking less soda.  I wanted my teammates to be healthier, too, so, I brought this workshop to my teammates in Menomonie.  Now, 15 of us support each other in our health goals.  (Some of them are standing behind me and supporting me right now).

Because of my heart issues, I go to the Mayo clinic annually.  I have told them about my involvement in Special Olympics.  My doctor tells me that because of Special Olympics, I am much more active than most of his patients which is helping my heart stay healthy.  Since I am on Medicare and Medicaid, this not only saves me money, it saves the government money, which means it benefits everyone.

Joint Finance Committee Listening Session – Wisconsin Dells

Wilderness Resort
April 12, 2023

Steve Woodard, Portage (6-06 Silver Lake)

My name is Steve Woodard. I am 44 years old and I was born and raised in Portage. I still live there with my parents and my brother who is also a Special Olympics athlete and is with me today.

I went to school in Portage but school wasn’t always pleasant for me. I have ADD/ADHD and that made social interaction difficult for me when I was young. Mostly I retreated into my shell but I occasionally lashed out at my classmates. It was such a hard time in my life; I dropped out of high school. The best thing I had going for myself then was Special Olympics. I started when I was 14 and in many ways, it has been my lifeline.

I always enjoyed being an athlete, but thanks to Athlete Leadership classes, I’m also a Health Messenger, Global Messenger, and coach.

Today, I am here to use my leadership skills to advocate for Special Olympics inclusive health programming.  Many people are surprised to learn that Special Olympics Wisconsin does more than just sports. They also help keep their athletes healthy by providing free health screenings.

In 2006, I was in Eau Claire competing in the Special Olympics State Softball Tournament.  During competition, I was experiencing extreme pain in my mouth, so I went to the Special Smiles area for an exam.  They discovered an abscess that needed urgent care.  The dentist and hygienist volunteering at the games secured a local clinic where they extracted the tooth and prescribed antibiotics that day.

Before the tournament, I didn’t receive regular dental care because I could not afford it.  After attending Special Smiles, I continued to see that dentist and receive regular care.

The impact of taking leadership classes and improving my health through Special Olympics inclusive health programs have changed my life for the better and I want others to have this same opportunity.

Joint Finance Committee Listening Session – Minocqua

Lakeland Union High School
April 26, 2023

Mat Amschler, Rice Lake (3-30 Barron County)

My name is Mat Amschler. I am 25 years old, and I live in Rice Lake with my family.

I have been a Special Olympics athlete for six years. I train and compete year round in bowling, softball, and basketball.  New this spring, I will participate in track and field.  I am a dedicated Special Olympics athlete and as the manager of the Rice Lake high school baseball team, I also exercise and run with the high school team.

My sister, Mya is also a Special Olympics athlete.  Last year, together with our teammates, we won the silver medal in softball at the Special Olympics State tournament.  It was something of a Cinderella story really, and we won the silver medal that day.  After five years playing softball, I had won my first medal.  It was amazing!

That day, I learned no matter how long it takes, hard work pays off.  I use that lesson in all aspects of my life.

I won my second-ever Special Olympics medal last weekend at the State Basketball tournament.  This time it was a gold.

I brought these medals with me today and I share my story, because as our founder, Eunice Kennedy Shriver once said, “Special Olympics is nice, but it is also important”.

People know Special Olympics as a sports program, but they do not know it is also a health, school and leadership program.

Through Special Olympics, I have taken leadership courses to become a public speaker, a health messenger and to serve on the statewide Athlete Leadership Council.  These opportunities along with my sports travel have taken me all over the state.  They also make me a stronger member of my own community where I not only work for the school district, but I am the voice of the Warrior’s baseball team.

The impact of all of this is that I am standing before you today as an advocate for people of all abilities.  I can only imagine what might have happened if I’d had known about Special Olympics earlier.  What if it had been offered as part of my school? I might have started at age 8.  I might have been on my high school sports teams.

Subscribe to Inspire!

Join our mailing list to receive regular updates!