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freezin' for a reason
Story by Susan O'Connor Photo by Dero Sanford

Kimberly Shipley’s first encounter with Special Olympics changed the direction of her career. She moved from the business world to a non-profit organization and hasn’t looked back.

“This is not what I started out to do,” she said. “But it became a passion. I started out as a volunteer, and I’m lucky to be able to work at what I love.”

After working for KAIT between 1996 and 2000, Shipley moved to Little Rock and worked in sales for Clear Channel for two years, working in several non-profits during that time. When Shipley moved back to Jonesboro she joined the Jaycees and got involved with Special Olympics.

“I went to my first event and I tell people that if you go to one event, it will suck you in. It will hook you,” she said.

Though Special Olympics calls to mind athletic endeavors for the handicapped, the scope of what this organization offers is much broader. Special Olympics seeks to shatter stereotypes of those with intellectual disabilities through research, public awareness and the promotion of health and education among the hundreds of thousands of athletes who participate each year.

Begun in the backyard of Eunice Kennedy Shriver with track and field events, Special Olympics is now the largest volunteer organization in the world with 180 countries involved. In Northeast Arkansas alone, there are literally thousands of volunteers who serve in a range of capacities, according to Shipley.

In 2006, the position of field representative for Area 7, which encompasses nine counties including Craighead, opened. Shipley was well known for her volunteer work with the organization and was hired as the first full-time representative for this area of the state. Her job is basically promotion and fundraising, however, the actual athletic events, which are ongoing throughout the year, are what she loves most.

“That’s my favorite part,” she said. “I get a chance to interact with the athletes. I am amazed at what they can do. They just want so much to be like everyone else. They try so hard!”

With sports such as soccer, softball, bowling, volleyball, basketball, golf, bocce, power lifting, traditional track and field events, flag football, snow shoeing and floor hockey, there is a sport for every athlete. And according to Shipley, these athletes train intensely.

“They are just like any other athlete,” she said. “We are serious about our training, but we have a good time. Athletes are grouped into divisions based on ability so the competition is fair.”

Special Olympics also offers unified sports, where disabled athletes play team sports alongside those without handicaps, serving to break down barriers and stigmas.

Beth Scott, a teacher from Weiner and Special Olympics coach, recently told Shipley that since students in her school system have been involved in Special Olympics, it has changed attitudes among other kids. “They are proud of their peers and cheer them on,” Scott said.

“For all of us, the athletes are our focus,” Shipley pointed out. “They are our stars. If you give the opportunity to people with a disability, they will take it. They will run with it. They will succeed. You can put a ball in the hands of a very low-functioning child, and that child’s eyes will light up. It is so much more than sports”

Shipley recounted a particularly moving encounter at the first state summer games she attended:

“The very first summer games I attended at Harding University in Searcy were on an unusually hot May weekend. I was at the finish line cheering on the athletes as they were running. One young girl caught my eye as she was running. She was very young and running as fast as she could. The other runners were already at the finish line while we cheered this girl on. I was struck by the huge smile on her face as she ran, despite the heat. She was last, but it didn’t matter. She crossed the finish line and I looked down as I hugged her and noticed braces on her legs for the first time. For this Special Olympian, simply finishing was a huge accomplishment and her joy was felt by everyone there.”

Shipley is also organizer of the organization’s Healthy Athlete Program at the state level, which involves free health screenings for the athletes. Health professionals volunteer their time at events, educating athletes about healthy lifestyle choices and offering screenings in areas such as vision, hearing, dentistry and physical therapy.

Special Olympics began the Healthy Athlete program 10 years ago, as leaders became aware of a lack of quality healthcare for people with intellectual disabilities. Healthy Athletes now has a presence in more than 100 countries and has served more than 700,000 athletes. Fifty thousand free pairs of eyeglasses have been distributed.

“I’m just fortunate to get to do this,” Shipley said. “I work a lot of weekends and long hours, but it’s worth it to me.”

Polar Bear Plunge
Though fundraisers are ongoing year-round to support this worthwhile cause, winter is the season for Polar Bear Plunge, set for Feb. 27 at Craighead Forest Lake. Registration is at noon, and plunging into the icy water begins at 1 p.m. Shipley encourages local businesses and individuals to get involved.

“Get a team together and challenge other businesses to match your donations, or pay to have your boss jump. There are all kinds of ways to be creative,” she said.

Since its inception nine years ago, Northeast Arkansas’ Polar Bear Plunge has raised about $15,000 per year. This year’s goal is $25,000. Shipley noted that funds raised in Arkansas support local athletes. This year, 25 Special Olympians from this area will compete in the national games, and 100 will represent team Arkansas.