By Steve Sweeney
The 2014 Special Olympics USA National Games have just concluded and I applaud all of the event organizers, volunteers, supporters, and especially the athletes, for making this an amazing event.
As New Jersey Senate president, I had the honor of being there every step of the way, from the announcement of New Jersey as host, to the opening ceremonies and the games themselves. I could not have been more proud of our state and the job everyone did to make the Games such a success for the 3,500 athletes competing in 14 Olympic-style sports.
However, it was not my title of Senate president that gave me the most pride, it was that of father.
My daughter, Lauren, was born with Down syndrome. When she was first born, I could basically hold her in one hand. She spent the first two-and-a-half months of her life in intensive care.
To be there — day in and day out — and to see my child go through that was the most difficult experience of my life. All I wanted to do was pick her up and tell her everything will be OK. All parents surely know that feeling.
Instead, I had to sit there and watch doctors and nurses shuffle in and out. At the time, I really didn’t know what was happening. When the doctors told me she had Down syndrome, I had no clue what that meant. And when they explained it to me, I was mad at the doctors. How dare they talk about my daughter that way?
But, as is often the case in life, Lauren is a blessing. She opened my eyes to a world I had not known before. I saw the way those with disabilities were treated and I did not like it.
It would have been easy for me to sit back and do nothing; to just accept the way Lauren and others with disabilities are treated. But I didn’t.
Instead, it motivated me to run for public office, because I wanted to enact change that would benefit an entire community — change that would let the world know that people with disabilities deserve the same love, understanding and happiness that we would want for anyone we care about.
My experience with Lauren helped me to learn about priorities in life. It also taught me the importance of working to make a difference for others and that it is possible to bring about change.
When I was a Gloucester County freeholder, I helped push through construction of the Bankbridge Development Center, a school specifically designed to help children with disabilities.
It’s truly an amazing place that was planned carefully to meet the needs of children, including rooms that were designed to cater to the specific needs of kids with autism.
We have even held proms for the kids there, a special event we felt every child should experience.
In addition, we built a ball field for special-needs kids. We called it the Field of Dreams.
I have been able to do much during my time in government, but these two accomplishments mean more to me than anything else I can think of — because they are personal and because they help other people’s children, too.
We have to reshape the way people think about those with disabilities. We have to break down the walls of intolerance that people have put up around them.
There are stigmas, and we all know them, that exist and will continue to exist for generations unless we as a community continue our hard work and expand our reach and our goals.
Individuals with disabilities are our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends, co-workers and neighbors. They are people we all know.
Lauren has inspired me every single day. I have watched her grow into a beautiful young woman and I could not possibly be more proud.
It was such a great feeling to watch Lauren participate in the Olympics. She played on a “unified” soccer team, which features a mix of disabled and partner athletes. As sponsor of the unified sports bill, it gave me such pride to watch my daughter be able to be included in these games. I also applaud Rowan University on becoming the first college to have unified sports and I look forward to others following its lead.
As the mission statement on its website says, Special Olympics provides people like Lauren the opportunity to continue to realize their potential, develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage and experience joy and friendship.
It was truly an honor, as a father and as Senate president, to watch the Games, and I appreciate the effort of everyone involved to make them such a success.
Read this opinion editorial in the Times of Trenton here.