By Janet Alston Jackson,
Contributing writer for the Sentinel
Olympic Gold Medalist, Rafer Johnson is continuously collecting awards honoring his tireless work for the group he wants most to be rewarded and recognized, Special Olympians.
The self-effacing and humble Johnson, founder of the Southern California Special Olympics (SOSC), seems to be all over the place making speeches, media interviews, and television appearances. But, unlike many celebrities today, he is surprisingly assessable. Johnson is focused on bringing more awareness to the Special Olympics and helping to erase the stigma behind the intellectual disabilities of the SOSC participants, who range from 8 years old to senior citizens. He has been on that mission for over forty years.
Johnson humbly deflects any praise making it clear, it is not about him. Instead he chooses to applaud the courage and hearts of the 13,000 special athletes, their strong, devoted families, and the dedicated support of 15,000 volunteers. To some Special Olympians, SOSC feels like a 2nd family. There is a lot of hugs, cheers, and support at practices and events for everyone involved.
Having devoted four decades to SOSC, it seems Johnson would have a personal connection to the cause with either a family member or friend with an intellectual disability. But, that’s not the case. Although he has grown attached to the special athletes like family members over the years.
His involvement with the Special Olympics started with an invitation in 1968. The Special Olympics International founder, the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver, asked him to attend the organization’s first competition in Chicago. Johnson had campaigned for his friend Robert F. Kennedy who was assassinated that same year. He was one of those present who helped wrestle Kennedy’s assassin, Sirhan Sirhan to the floor.
“I went to Chicago and I heard Ms. Shriver speak, and from that moment on I knew that would be the program I would be involved with as long as I possibly could.” says Johnson.
Inspired by Shriver and the athletes, in 1969 he founded the Special Olympics Southern California with a small group of volunteers.
Since then Johnson has seen a steady increase in the number of athletes and volunteers joining SOSC. “Forty years ago, families hesitated before they committed their children to the Special Olympics, because they thought since it was a group of people with intellectual disabilities, people would point fingers at their child if they joined, and they would be recognized. In ways they were recognized, but it was in such a positive light,” says Johnson says the special athletes are inspiring to others because they had a chance to compete, to learn, and to grow.
Johnson believes the steady growing number of participants in SOSC is because the stigma of intellectual disabilities is being erased. “Families hear its a great program, and so more people are signing up their loved ones.
“When someone is virtually taken out of the dark, like our Special Olympic Athletes and their families, and they are given an opportunity to be involved in good activities, it doesn’t just affect what goes on the field, or the game court, it affects the schools, and it affects families, in a positive way,” says Johnson. “Today there are athletic programs in schools where a special athletes with an intellectual disability can participate.”
Johnson says he doesn’t know where he would be in his life without having had the opportunities to use his skills which elevated his self esteem. He literally ran with those opportunities. In 1960 the sports super star was the first African American to carry the U.S. flag in an Olympic opening ceremony in Rome. By the time he got to the 1,500 meters in Rome, he had been the world record-holder in the decathlon, winning the silver medal. He had overcome all sorts of ailments and injuries, including a car accident in 1959. That same year, Sports Illustrated placed Johnson on the cover, naming him “Sportsman of the Year.” In 1984 Johnson was chosen the USA Team Captain, who lit the Olympic Cauldron to open the Los Angeles Olympic Games at the Coliseum.
Johnson and his wife Betsy have raised two children. His son Josh, was a Javelin Thrower for UCLA and his daughter Jenny, competed at the 2000 Sydney Games in Beach Volleyball.
The Gold Medalist reflects on his own life and how important competition is to all athletes, especially those involved with SOSC. “Special Olympic Athletes are five times more likely to have jobs compared to the general population of adults with intellectual disabilities,” says Johnson who believes sports helps the SOSC athletes develop confidence. “They believe in themselves so they apply and land jobs. When a person has the opportunity to be the best that he or she can be, they become better. “
Johnson knows how hard it is for families to get help for loved ones with disabilities. “If someone has questions on where to get help for their family member with Special Needs, call the SOSC office, 562-354-2600 or firstname.lastname@example.org We know where to direct people, even if they don’t want to join SOSC, but they just don’t know where to go. They can ask for me.”
YOU CAN WIN A $2.2 Million Dollar Dream Home, or $1.5 Million Dollars
The Special Olympics Southern California (SOSC) has announced its second Dream House Raffle, offering a $2.2 million home or cash payout of $1.5 million.
Those who purchase tickets before the “early-bird”, February 18, 2011 deadline are eligible to win prizes leading up to the grand-prize drawing. From February to May, there will be a monthly drawing for additional cash prizes that range from $1,000 to $25,000. Additional prizes will be awarded during the grand prize drawing, including a 2011 Toyota Prius vehicle, luxury vacations and more.
There is also a “refer-a-friend” drawing, giving those who generate entries through referrals a chance to win $15,000 or one year’s rent at gallery421, a Lyon Communities Development. The entry deadline for the first early-bird drawing is February 18, 2011 and the final raffle entry deadline is May 13, 2011. A complete list of early-bird drawing dates and prize categories can be viewed online at http://www.socalraffle.com. The grand-prize drawing will be held on May 28, 2011.
All contest rules and regulations as well as photos of the home are online at http://www.socalraffle.com. To purchase tickets or for more information, call (800) 816-6108 or visit http://www.socalraffle.com.