Perhaps it was the trip to the medal stand. Maybe it was a photo she took with her idol, Olympic decathlon great Rafer Johnson. Or it could have simply been volunteering at a competition.
These are among Sarah Noonan’s favorite moments as an athlete in Special Olympics Southern California, but they also mean the world to her mother, Jill Wall, an executive assistant at Southern California Edison (SCE), who could hardly contain herself while revealing what the Special Olympics mean to Sarah, 28, who has an intellectual disability and mild cerebral palsy.
“It’s just really brought all the best out in her,” Wall said. “You just see the joy in her face. She’s pretty happy most of the time, but she just glows at meets.”
SCE provides funding for the organization’s programming and Megan Jordan, SCE vice president of Corporate Communications, revels in the spirit of the Special Olympics as one of its newest board members.
“One of their old taglines is ‘training for life’ and it’s true,” said Jordan, who is on a mission to increase athlete and volunteer participation even more. “We are teaching the athletes skills that transfer outside of the events and we, as volunteers, are transformed by the athletes and our interaction with them. It’s very inspiring.”
The World Summer Games will be coming to Los Angeles in July 2015 and will feature more than 7,000 athletes from 170 countries competing in 21 events in front of a half-million spectators.
Like many of the athletes, Sarah got involved in the Special Olympics in 1996 when her mother was seeking an activity where she would fit in. Now she competes in the 50- and 100-meter runs and her favorite, the softball throw, for Team Norwalk, during the summer. She also bowls in the fall.
“She loved it right off the bat,” said Wall, a volunteer coach who sometimes runs down the infield during races to encourage Sarah. “She’s not different there. Everybody is happy and helping.”
The helping extends to competition and evokes Wall’s favorite moment from the state Summer Games a few years ago, when Sarah stopped during her race and urged a trailing competitor on.
“I thought, ‘you know what, this is what it’s all about,’” said Wall, whose husband, John, sons Scott and Sean, and Sarah's father, Ken Noonan, all provide plenty of support as well. “[Sarah] didn’t have a lot of social skills and she had a lot of behavior issues for years. It’s really helped with that. It’s just really brought all the best out in her.”
That also could apply to a certain Olympic hero Sarah adores.
“She loves Rafer Johnson,” said Wall of the 1960 Olympic gold medalist who founded the organization in 1969. “She’s met him many times and when she sees him, she just stops. And then she’ll walk up to him and put her hand out. She’s just got this smile on her face … She just thinks he’s the cat’s meow.”
Marlyn Denter, SCE’s manager of consumer affairs, shares similar sentiments as a former board member and volunteer with the Special Olympics, saying, “Once I got involved, I was hooked.”
“Special Olympics is an organization for people with developmental disabilities, but what I see is their abilities,” said Denter, a member of the organization’s public relations committee. “The year-round programming provides the athletes with opportunities to socialize and gain self-confidence, which improves the quality of life not only for the athletes, but for their families as well.
Special Olympics Southern California is always looking for help and Jordan encourages people to volunteer, as SCE has done in the past by providing on-site transportation via electric golf carts.
“We need volunteers to hand out water, snacks,” Jordan said. “Everyone can make a difference. I’ll be out there with my four children who I’ve recruited to make encouraging signs and cheer on the athletes.”
Since Sarah has never competed in the World Games, the 2015 Coliseum event would be the ultimate for her. But if it doesn’t happen, Wall says Sarah will happily volunteer and relish every minute of it.
“She just loves the camaraderie,” Wall said, beaming. “But the most important thing is she doesn’t feel different there. She just lights up like a Christmas tree.”