Lessons from the Special Olympics VA Staff

A Summer Intern Shares her Experiences

By Cassie Coughlan

At events, they’re seen at the check-in tables, mentioned in the half-listened-to list of thank-yous, and spotted running around, responding to requests and complaints. They’re the ones that “without them, this couldn’t have happened.” They work year-round, setting goals, answering emails, strategically planning, and executing the mission of Special Olympics Virginia.

And I, an intern, had the privilege of dipping my feet into the culture and camaraderie enjoyed by the hard-working people in the Special Olympics Virginia office on a daily basis. From the get-go, I felt welcomed by everyone from the president to my fellow interns. The cheerful ambience stems from the obvious passion of the people--Special Olympics Virginia's greatest asset according to President Rick Jeffrey--and overflows onto the walls, which teem with inspiring quotes and murals.

Unfortunately, I arrived at somewhat of a transition time. With Summer Games completed, the staff focused on planning for the year ahead. Their WIGs (Wildly Important Goals) and month-by-month plan were prominently written on the walls. I hoped that I could help contribute to these goals, even if it meant simply easing the burden of my mentors. Filing, updating the database, modifying and creating spreadsheets, and researching, among other things, were all part of the job description. My contacts Ellen Costlow, Director of Volunteer Services, and Bryan Schubring, Director of Sports and Competition, kept me busy.

However, by far, the most nuanced and informative elements of my experience were meetings. Yes, meetings, the typically dreaded and way-too-long hours of listening and debating; obligatory engagements that make it difficult to get out of bed in the morning. However, every image that comes to mind with the word meeting was turned on its head. For me, meetings made time fly.

I began with lunch meetings. I personally enjoy--sometimes to my detriment--seeking improvement, constructively criticizing. In the meetings I observed with the softball and swimming coordinators, Ellen and Bryan did just that. They probed, asked questions and let their guests do most of the talking. I knew that the suggestions they received were being taken seriously and that the coordinators themselves recognized a need to improve. It was meaningful to witness the connection between the staff, the volunteers, and ultimately the community as a whole.

Coincidentally, the first time I met the entirety of the staff was during another lunchmeeting. Although the people seated around the table carried a variety of professional backgrounds, experience levels, and personality types, they connected through their commonalities.

Because this mission, this common goal, is so central to the work that they complete on a daily basis, a spirit of collaboration and open-mindedness is present not only during Special Olympics Virginia events, but in the interactions and decisions made about reaching out to schools, improving the health of athletes, and educating people about acceptance. The three core values emphasized within the office by President Rick Jeffrey: respect, inclusiveness, and unity, are intertwined and act as a cornerstone for every new brick that is laid within the organization.

However, before I even knew I would be excitedly writing this article-of-sorts, I was interested in meeting the aforementioned unsung heroes of Special Olympics Virginia. Graciously, many of them took ten minutes (okay, maybe an hour) out of their day to talk to me, a lowly intern. When given the opportunity to speak freely--or as freely as they could to a somewhat-clueless teenager-- about their relationship with their job, the staff took me to all sorts of places, from World Games to Little Feet Meets.

They had college degrees in everything from sports and recreation to criminal justice to journalism. One of them had become involved in Special Olympics because of a coworker, another chuckled as she explained that she simply called the Special Olympics Virginia office, and even others had begun as volunteers. Although their jobs varied in scope and subject matter, they felt they had grown professionally and personally as a result of their chosen career. By the end, I had gathered a collection of stories from people in different stages of their careers, people with kids at home or an empty nest, people who answered my questions concisely and those who could enthusiastically speak for hours about how Special Olympics is giving incredible opportunities to athletes.

Unanimously, witnessing the life-changing impact of sports was a highlight of the job. When the day-to-day work is tedious (which, the staff will assure you, isn’t often), there is always a story, an athlete, a moment to cherish. Athletes will shatter expectations, bring a smile to your face, and do what once seemed impossible when given the opportunity.

However, Special Olympics goes beyond the playing field. By encouraging people with disabilities to be autonomous, healthy, and, most importantly, believe in themselves, the organization seeks to help make long-term changes in the realms of education and awareness. For those in the office, sports are a vehicle for social change in the community and beyond. And this change can begin with one person, one organization, or one phone call. 

If you are interested in an internship with Special Olympics Virginia please contact us at