A Lifetime of Volunteering Is Time Well Spent
| (Special Olympics Connecticut)|
On Lisa Markham’s birthday, her friends and family were eager to celebrate the milestone with a party, but Lisa wasn’t interested in celebrating herself that day; she was busy helping the athletes at the Connecticut Special Olympics Summer Games. Her focus was on the event, the athletes, and being sure that the thousands of athletes competing had a rich experience—and one more person in their cheering section. Special Olympics came first. For the past twenty-plus years of volunteering with the organization, which provides persons with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to grow through organized sports, Lisa Markham has made plenty of sacrifices and her dedication is evident in the long hours (sometimes as much a forty hours a week) she logs in order to help a very special group of people gain more confidence, friends, and opportunities.
“As a volunteer, to give as much time as I do, you need to have a passion for it because you’re choosing to give your time that you might spend with family and friends to the organization. It truly is a choice about where I want to be and how I want to give my time.” And so Lisa’s weekends and days off are spent helping to make a better experience for the athletes. While she uses her skills from her day job as an event planner for a sports marketing company to help bring entertainment and provide logistical support to the huge and complicated behind-the-scenes coordination of Special Olympics competitions, Lisa loves to be involved in every part of the organization. “Anything they ask (me to do), I do because Special Olympics is part of my daily life. I get out of bed because of Special Olympics. It’s an inspiring group of people. They have become family; they’ve become friends…I couldn’t imagine my life without it or the relationships that I have with the athletes, who I see all year long…”
While working at IBM twenty-three years ago, Lisa joined a group of co-workers volunteering at a Special Olympics event. Before then she never had a tie to Special Olympics, or a relationship with anyone with an intellectual disability. Now it is the relationships with the athletes, staff and volunteers of Special Olympics Connecticut that make her stay. They have become a part of her life. In fact, Lisa has chosen to include Special Olympics in her life on all levels. “When I look at people that I would want to meet (or date seriously), I have to be able to envision that one of two things would happen: A. the person would be able to be involved with me in Special Olympics, or B. if they don’t want to be involved, they need to understand my involvement or support my involvement. It matters to me that much.”
In the beginning, when Lisa was working with the athletes, she found more differences than similarities between the athletes and herself. “They were very different people, and I had to look beyond my own thoughts and my own feelings and really dig deep inside to understand…where they were coming from and what their life had been like…in order to get beyond my nervousness around somebody because I’m not sure what they’re going to say or how I’m going to react.” It is a common feeling when volunteers first begin working with Special Olympics, but it is a feeling that has long since dissipated for Lisa, who now sees the great many qualities that the athletes share with people without intellectual disabilities.
|Lisa spends time with an athlete at a dance. (Special Olympics Connecticut)|
While Lisa does spend time with Special Olympics athletes during the games and award ceremonies, much of the Lisa’s work occurs behind the scenes; however, being out of the spotlight doesn’t diminish the tremendous impact Lisa’s volunteering has on Special Olympics Connecticut. Through organizing many of the fundraisers and events, she is helping to make competitions—and fun—possible for all the athletes and their families, as well as the volunteers. As a veteran volunteer Lisa is also a wonderful role model for others giving their time. “Lisa brings…a ‘can-do’ attitude. If you give Lisa an assignment, you can be assured that it will not only get done, but it will get done extremely well,” says Laura Gremelsbacker, Special Olympics Connecticut’s Director of Public Relations.
| (Special Olympics Connecticut)|
Lisa’s story doesn’t just stop at the astounding feat of working nearly a second full time job as a volunteer. It also offers a frame through which life has new meaning and inspires a passion for making other people’s lives better. “Being in the sports industry and seeing people who compete for millions and millions of dollars and then looking at a Special Olympics athlete who competes for the sheer joy of competing…gives great perspective on what’s really important in life.” The perspective provided by the athletes and their stories is what keeps Lisa coming back for, as she calls it, “my head check.” It helps her step back and ease up on fretting about the little—and big—things in life. “(Volunteering for Special Olympics means) giving somebody the opportunity to compete. It’s giving somebody the chance to have a better life. I look at some of the athletes and they’re far more put together than many of us able-bodied people are because they look at life so differently. They love unconditionally. We all sweat the small stuff and the big stuff and then you look at an athlete who has a totally different perspective.”
One athlete’s story in particular stands out for Lisa. While working at the 1995 World Games, she listened to the story of Loretta Claiborne, an athlete, a Special Olympics global messenger, a member of the Special Olympics board, and a motivational speaker. Loretta was born partially blind, with a turned foot and an intellectual disability; she didn’t walk until she was four years old. Then she found her passion in running and Special Olympics, and excelled in sports (running the Boston Marathon in just minutes over three hours) and in life (she lives by herself—not too far from where she grew up, being teased and harassed). “It was the first time I actually listened to an athlete’s story. It brought tears to my eyes. It was how she told her story…She amazed me with the challenges she went through and the accomplishments she had made. There was no bitterness, no negative feelings. She had been treated horribly her whole life and this is a woman who was just filled with good stuff. She looked at the world unconditionally and was willing to give everybody a break…something happened that day and my life took a very different turn.” Lisa elaborates, “It really made me step back and look at myself and my own life and how I conduct myself and other people conduct themselves…it was a turning point…because I wanted to do things differently in my life.”
If there is one thing that is fairly certain in Lisa’s Markham’s life, it is that she will be a life-long volunteer for Special Olympics. The countless hours that she puts into the organization go beyond a good deed and show a level of passion and commitment that surely raises the bar for other volunteers. Lisa would never call herself a hero, but in that heroes provide a beacon for others to follow, she certainly is one. Her passion and level of commitment inspire everyone around her. The enthusiasm and love that Lisa has for the organization make it difficult for her to put into words all that Special Olympics does for her; but for volunteers and all those would-be volunteers she can guarantee that, “as a volunteer you get back so much more than you give, and a lot of people don’t recognize that…if you can get people to take the plunge, 90% of them will stick with it.” Go ahead take the plunge. You may just find your passion.