A 2nd Act: Abilities, Not Disabilities

Jamie Heckerman (far right), president & CEO of Special Olympics Arizona

Pursuing a life of good works from a wheelchair is an inspiring second act. Creating a second second act from a wheelchair is above and beyond. But then, Jamie Heckerman is an above-and-beyond kind of woman. She was born with spina bifida, a rare birth defect affecting the development of the spine. Her first surgery took place when she was three days old, but her condition was not reversible. She became a wheelchair basketball standout in high school, earning a shot at three scholarships from the University of Illinois, the University of Alabama and the University of Arizona. Sunshine called to this Iowa girl, and Arizona benefited from it.

With a goal of a career in wheelchair athletics, Heckerman used her downtime from studies to volunteer for Special Olympics Arizona (SOAZ). She was paired with a bowling league and tasked with collecting money and ensuring the athletes got to the right lanes. She had never had experience with this population before and it was love at first sight.

“I can’t describe the feeling of being seen for your abilities rather than disabilities,” Heckerman said. “That was the case for me, playing basketball from my wheelchair. And it was true of the Special Olympics athletes, too.”

That realization led Heckerman down an entirely new path and that second second act: Arizona State University. She and her husband moved to Phoenix so she could pursue a degree in therapeutic recreation through ASU’s School of Community Resources and Development. She continued volunteering with Special Olympics in the Valley, and when a staff position opened in Peoria, Heckerman was on board. Next came a job in operations and quality control, followed by the much-deserved appointment to president and CEO in 2018.

“We host over 400 events a year, including our school programs, fundraising and statewide competitions,” Heckerman said. “Our youngest athletes are 2 year olds, and our oldest is 87, a bocce ball aficionado.”

While the organization has six offices statewide, with a paid staff person at each, SOAZ wouldn’t exist if not for a dedicated army of volunteers. They help with communication, take athletes to practices and competitions, help run competitions, and serve meals at them.

“We also have medical clinicians who volunteer their time,” Heckerman said. “Many of our athletes become anxious at medical screenings, so we roll those into our events. Dental exams, eye and ear testing, inoculations — we take the clinicians out of the white coats and make them a part of the fun atmosphere.”

As has been the case for many of the state’s nonprofits, the past year has hit SOAZ hard. Funding priorities have changed for individuals and grantmakers, shifting to organizations that provide immediate needs. That doesn’t include SOAZ. And their primary fundraising avenue has been curtailed.

“No one does a better job of telling the Special Olympics story than the athletes themselves,” Heckerman said. “This population has become so isolated. They can’t go to jobs as they have a higher risk of getting COVID. We’re looking forward to getting athletes vaccinated and back out in person, where they can share the impact that SOAZ has had on their lives. It’s not just sports.”

In the meantime, Heckerman and her crew have done a wonderful job of pivoting. SOAZconnected gives participants new ways to engage in four areas: health and fitness, arts, social and Esports. All of the classes are presented live through their website.

“At a recent staff meeting, Amber, a health intern, drove home the importance of these virtual programs,” Heckerman said.

“Amber had moved here just before COVID hit. She didn’t know anyone and told us without SOAZconnected, she couldn’t imagine where she’d be.”

The Unified Champion Schools program engages schools in creating climates of inclusion, acceptance, respect and human dignity for all students with and without intellectual disabilities. Pairing SOAZ athletes and students without disabilities gives them all a chance to grow in myriad ways. Now, in this unprecedented time, it’s even more critical, providing the tools and resilience to raise schools to new levels of social connection and inclusion for all students.

What will this woman with multiple second acts do next? Heckerman makes no predictions. But it’s clear that the thousands of athletes and volunteers in her care will always benefit from Special Olympics’ founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s vision: “To improve the lives of people with intellectual disabilities everywhere, and transform the lives of everyone they touch — building a better, more accepting world for all of us.”

To learn more, go to specialolympicsarizona.org.

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