Olympic-size smiles light up event

Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt. — Special Olympics motto

Grinnell Mutual President Jeff Menary summed up the company’s sponsorship of Special Olympics Iowa nicely: “It’s one of those things where you get more out of it than you give.”

Claims support supervisor Connie Weir agrees. Her son, Christopher, competes every year in the Olympics, which is held each May at Iowa State University’s campus in Ames. She said it’s taught Christopher a lot.

“It's helped him be more social, and taught him that it's OK not to win, to just do your best. The participants, they don't care what they get — ribbon, medal — they are so excited to be able to participate, and they'll come up to you after an event and say, ‘Look what I got!’”

One year, Christopher participated at the district level and didn’t make it to state. His reaction, Connie said, was, “That’s OK. We’ll let someone else take a turn at getting first.”

As if to prove that point, this year, on May 18, Christopher stood proudly in the second-place position on the podium, giving fist bumps and hugs to the athlete who won first. The two kept congratulating each other. Those watching from the crowd couldn’t tell whether the athletes were happier for themselves or for the other guy.

Off the starting blocks

This year, through corporate sponsorship, book sales, book signings, and employee gifts, our company’s donations to Special Olympics Iowa totaled $10,567. Our volunteers spent two days at the event — one day devoted to helping with track, the second dedicated to field. Close to 60 employees participated. Overall this year, more than 1,600 volunteers helped make the competitions possible for close to 2,800 athletes from across the state, who participated in 23 sports.

Jeff Menary remembers when it first got off the ground.

“There’s never been an activity or fundraiser that was met with so much enthusiasm and support as the first year we were a sponsor of the games. We had penny wars, and the loser had to perform a lip sync act in front of the whole company. Members from the Special Olympics came out and told their story. It went so well and was so rewarding.”

One thing you hear a lot when asking about Grinnell Mutual’s involvement in the Special Olympics is how its volunteers follow through on their promises. Typically, organizers expect that about half of the people who sign up will actually show. In 2016, our first year of sponsorship, organizers asked for 60 figuring 30 might make it. All 60 Grinnell employees arrived, ready to pitch in.

There’s also a spirit of celebration that permeates the whole scene and there are plenty of non-competitive activities to round out the fun. In one area of the Iowa State University’s campus, where the event is held, you might see face-painting, people shooting hoops, craft projects, and a makeshift dance floor complete with a giant speaker.

Solid team effort

Todd Milburn, director of commercial underwriting, has a 13-year-old nephew who participates each year in the 100-yard dash. Todd said that almost his entire team volunteered this year. Not only did they have the incentive of helping a good cause and supporting the company, but after volunteering his team headed to Hickory Park, a beloved Ames restaurant — and the unofficial hangout of Special Olympics families and friends — for ice cream.

Associate underwriter Amy Martin volunteered to bond with coworkers and to be part of something so worthwhile. She enjoyed watching each athlete’s technique in the shot-put circle. “Each athlete made it their own,” she said.

Athlete Tyler Smothers, a wheelchair racer from Cedar Rapids, marked his 20th year of competing this year. His mother, Cindy, said some of the volunteers there have been doing it for so long that Tyler has gotten to know them. “The whole event probably wouldn't take without the involvement and financial support from outside businesses like yours,” Cindy said.

Across the finish line

Vice President Dave Wingert volunteered this year as a bike-race monitor in the parking lot of Hilton Coliseum. He said it’s been an ideal way to be active in the community.

“Everyone knows Special Olympics is a great cause. It’s a big organization, so they need lots of volunteers. It’s all part of being a good corporate citizen, supporting the communities in which we do business, and it’s a good opportunity for our employees to be engaged in a good cause and to use the paid volunteer time off that Grinnell Mutual offers.”

Its popularity with volunteers is obvious to anyone who’s attended the games. There’s the intrinsic reward of being part of something so joyful.

And there’s the smile factor. Smiles at the games are more prevalent than even sunscreen, water bottles, and high fives.

Which is saying something.

For more information

Visit soiowa.org to learn more about Special Olympics Iowa, including upcoming competitions and how you can get involved as a volunteer, coach, or donor.

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