Fitting in can sometimes be troublesome, especially if people think they don’t have any shared commonalities.
Therein lie a potential difficulty in growing the Unified Partners program in Special Olympics Missouri – but only if the focus is on peoples’ differences instead of their similarities.
Unified Sports is an inclusive program that pairs individuals with intellectual disabilities (SOMO athletes) and individuals without IDs (partners) on sports teams for training and competition in 21 Olympic-type sports divisioned by age and ability.
It might seem like growing such a program would be difficult, but only if someone focuses on the differences. It doesn’t take too long, however, to see there are many more similarities between our athletes and our Unified Partners than differences.
If there’s one person who could be considered the poster girl for ignoring the differences and highlighting the similarities between athletes and UPs, it’s UP and Lee’s Summit Police Officer Amanda Geno.
“Amanda is awesome,” said coach Bea Webb of the Jackson County Parks and Rec Special Population Services team. “She has become a big sister, a role model to the guys and girls of our team. She’s just a great young lady; she’s dignified, but laughs and jokes with them as if she was one of them.”
Geno, 29, is one of them. As a UP, she’s considered a Special Olympics athlete – and her fellow athletes love her.
“She’s a lot of fun,” said SOMO Athlete Brittany Selken. “She wants to be around all of the time.”
Selken, 23, and Geno have been partners for a little more than a year in softball and bowling. Selken has already taken a liking to Geno, mainly because of her authenticity.
“She’s just so understanding, loveable, caring and there for you when you need somebody to talk to,” Selken said. “When my mom passed away she was there for me to talk to and understand what I was going through.”
Geno said the experience of being a UP is what you make of it.
“It’s hard to decide what I most enjoy as a UP,” Geno said. “Sometimes I laugh until I cry and sometimes they laugh out loud at me when I trip over the ball return or do something goofy. I also enjoy how excited they are to see me and are always quick to ask how my weekend was or how I’ve been.
“I’m proud to introduce and claim my partners and team. I make them a part of my life outside of SOMO.”
‘Almost like it was meant to be’
Geno first became involved with Special Olympics in 2002 after selecting her college sorority based on its already-existing relationship with Special Olympics.
She went on to help a Special Olympics wheelchair slalom team practice with her college cross country team.
Following college, Geno became a police officer and joined the Law Enforcement Torch Run, which helped further the cause in Geno’s eyes.
“It’s almost like it was meant to be.” she said.
In the past few years, Geno has gone out of her way to become more involved with SOMO. Fellow Lee’s Summit police officer Mark Wiesemann said Geno has been pushing to do more with the LETR.
“What separates her from other officers involved in LETR is that she goes to many more events,” Wiesemann said. “Whether it’s to pass out medals or to participate as a Unified Partner® … she has also helped coordinate a Torch Run and also assists both in the planning and set-up of the Polar Plunge.”
Kami Delameter, regional development director for SOMO, said Geno is the embodiment for what LETR is all about.
“Amanda is a wonderful representation of our partnership with law enforcement,” Delameter said. “She has embraced SOMO in all aspects – torch runner, Plunge committee member, (Games Management Team) member and general event-day volunteer.
“She’s gotten her mom and boyfriend (another law enforcement officer) involved with volunteering also.”
Geno said she wanted to serve on the games management teams because she can be the voice of the athletes and make sure they are heard in the planning of events in and around the KC Metro Area events.
“I wanted to serve on several GMTs because I know the athletes; I know what’s important to them; I know what they like and don’t like,” she said. “I decided to join the Plunge committee because the KC Metro Area Plunge is the best. It has been run by a Lee’s Summit officer for the last 10 years, and it is just another way to be involved by creating awareness and raising funds for the athletes.”
Coach Webb said this push to become immersed in the behind-the-scenes aspect of SOMO is what makes Geno so invaluable.
“She surrounds herself in our program,” Webb said. “I asked her why and she didn’t even hesitate to say, ‘It’s a part of my life.’
“It’s a part of her.”
A little MO Magic
In June 2013, Geno took part in SOMO’s USA Games Selection Camp at the Missouri Military Academy in Mexico, Mo. She qualified for the bowling team and will compete alongside fellow athlete Tiffany Wright at the 2014 USA Games, June 14-21, in New Jersey.
This will be the first time Geno will compete at a national level for Special Olympics Missouri and it’s safe to say she’s a little excited about the opportunity.
“I’m learning as I go, and I’m pretty sure I’m just as excited as the athletes,” Geno said. “I’m proud to be their voice if they need it, their shoulder to cry on when things get tough and an encouraging voice when they are having a bad game.
“After I was nominated by (coach Webb), I wanted to join the team because the athletes know I’m there for them and want the absolute best for them. And on the same hand, they know I expect nothing but the best through a lot of hard work. I wanted to experience the opportunities these athletes will have all thanks to Special Olympics.”
So, why did coach Webb pick Geno as a Unified Partner for the Team Missouri bowling team?
“The fact that she’s an officer, I thought it’d be great to have a volunteer officer on the team and how she gets along so well with all of the other bowlers,” Webb said.
“I noticed one day at bowling practice she was tutoring an athlete in their schoolwork in between taking turns bowling. She’s very respectful to the athlete and herself.”
Geno said she wants to go to New Jersey so badly that she would have taken any spot on Team Missouri, regardless of the sport.
“The athletes put a smile on my face and teach me to be a better person every minute I’m around them,” she said. “I can’t wait to go on this journey with them. And then when I return to Missouri, I can’t wait to tell all of my family, friends and co-workers about the experience, hoping to spark an interest in volunteering.”