Last week BCC held its first unified Special Olympics day, inviting children and young adults with and without disabilities to participate in a day of fun and games together. BCC has an inclusive education classroom at a local primary school where BCC students receive education and therapy facilitated by BCC staff in partnership with special education teachers appointed by the local government. We invited 15 students without disabilities from the same primary school to participate in the Special Olympics day, with the hope that relationships would be strengthened between the children and young adults in our classroom and their peers.
We were honored to welcome 80 athletes, 24 BCC staff, 2 pastors, 2 Mosaic staff, 4 Moshi Primary staff, 19 incredible volunteers visiting Tanzania with Mosaic, and our guest of honor the General Secretary of the Northern Diocese of the Lutheran church to join us for the special day.
For most of the morning, I was running around (sometimes literally) ensuring the event progressed as smoothly as possible, or assisting one of the children we serve to participate. Our wonderful volunteers and staff assisted the athletes at each station, and since I was not assigned to a station, I had the privilege of witnessing moments throughout the event that stopped me in my tracks.
One such moment happened as I was standing near the throwing station. I was watching a volunteer throw a large ball to Gabriel, a young man who has cerebral palsy and is a wheelchair user. Gabriel was having difficulty catching the ball on his own. One of the students from the primary school, Helena, noticed, stopped throwing the ball with her partner, and began assisting Gabriel to catch the ball as it was thrown to him. As the ball soared toward them, Gabriel reached out and caught it, and if the ball began to slip away, Helena placed her hands on it to secure its place in Gabriel’s arms. I watched her smile shyly at Gabriel as they played together and thought that this interaction may seem small, but it is the reason we were all there.
Another moment was one that is not unusual but always heartwarming nonetheless. In many of our centers, young adults assist and support the younger children in different activities. For example, at our Msaranga center, there are two young men, Elias and James, who regularly assist the younger children to walk, eat, and play. After the closing ceremony, I found James sitting with Sayuni, who is a wheelchair user and requires assistance to sit. James was supporting her while the two sat and hung out with their friends. James cares for Sayuni and goes out of his way to ensure that she is included; the pair are a beautiful illustration of love and friendship.
A final amazing part of the day was when all of the athletes received their medals. One of the athletes named Mudi, who I wrote about earlier in my fellowship, was so overwhelmed with joy that he sprinted up to get his medal and his face exploded into possibly the largest smile I have ever seen. Mudi is a happy person in general with an incredibly charming smile, but this was an unadulterated joy like I have never witnessed.
Stigma is still a major challenge facing people with disabilities in Tanzania. Aside from a belief that having a child with a disability is the result of a curse or a fault of a parent, there is a belief that people with disabilities do not have the potential to learn, reach their goals, or live a meaningful life. Advocacy must be a vital part of BCC’s work in order to improve the quality of life for individuals with disabilities in Moshi and throughout Tanzania. The Special Olympics day is a wonderful example of advocacy through action. It provides opportunities for inclusion through play and a shared love of kicking, jumping, cheering, and dancing! It is my sincere hope that the children without disabilities who participated learned that children with disabilities love to play soccer just as much as they do. I have met adults in Tanzania who had never seen a person with a disability, because the children and adults with disabilities who they should’ve encountered throughout their lives had been hidden in a room, isolated from their communities. I hope that the children who attended the Special Olympics day remember the relationships they formed and grow up loving, respecting, and advocating for their friends with disabilities.
My mother, Michelle Bailey, is also an advocate for people with intellectual disabilities and works to provide online training and development for healthcare workers who serve people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She recently volunteered for the first time at a Special Olympics event in North Carolina. Describing her experience, she wrote,
“Why has it taken me so long to volunteer? My company Relias Learning is a strong supporter of Special Olympics and we do several fundraising events each year, but I never took the opportunity to volunteer at a Special Olympics event. In June the NC Special Olympics was held in my community, and several people from my department decided to volunteer at the all-day softball competition. I was asked to sign up for a particular job and I decided on handing out medals. Why? Because selfishly I thought hugs would be likely and I am a hugger! I was thanked all day for volunteering my time on a hot summer day but truly I should have been doing the ‘thanking’ as it was an amazing day filled with cheering, high fiving, smiles and yes, HUGS. It was especially rewarding for me to work with Special Olympics as my company provides training and development to those that serve the most vulnerable members of society. The connection was strong and incredibly rewarding. I can honestly say that although it was a day of volunteering, I received so much more back than I can possibly tell you!”
Although our Special Olympics day was approximately 8,000 miles from the NC Special Olympics, I am certain our volunteers and everyone who participated would echo my mother’s sentiments. Cheering, high fives, smiles, hugs, and joy are universal. I want to sincerely thank all of the volunteers and donors whose generous contributions allowed us to host this Special Olympics day.
I was on the phone this week with one my best friends discussing Special Olympics, and as we began to talk about the opportunities it provides, he said, “Don’t underestimate what one amazing day means for these children. This memory will help them get through hard times, and even when other people tell them that they can’t do something, they’ll remember you telling them that they can.”
And he’s right. It may only be one day, but it was one day that hopefully instilled the idea in the minds of the children we serve that they can do anything. It was a day full of possibilities, for today and tomorrow.
By Alex Bailey