Children don’t expect you to fail. I have seen this sentiment in the eyes of the many young athletes I have had the privilege to work with in my time with Special Olympics Costa Rica. When they run up and give me a hug at the beginning of tennis practice, call me “Profa”, and ask to hold my hand during warm-up, it never cro
sses their mind that I barely know anything more about tennis than they do or that there is a good chance I won’t understand the string of rapid Spanish they yell at me playfully from across the court. When I stood in front of over 100 children in Cachi, waiting for music to start for Zumba, they never questioned if I would forget a move or why I was up there dancing in the first place, they just beamed up at me with anticipation and excitement for the “fiesta super divertida ” I had promised. All children expect is for whatever you are doing, whether it be swinging a racquet or dancing to “Vente Pa-Ca”, to be fun and full of enthusiasm. Unless you have proven them wrong in the past, they would never question that you are potentially uncapable of delivering.
The worst part about looking into the trusting eyes of so many young Special Olympic Athletes week after week is knowing that, eventually, you are going to fail them in a big way and there is nothing you can do about it.
The problem is that Special Olympics Costa Rica is running out of money, and fast. Basically the government pulled their funding, which was crucial for Special Olympics to run their programs. Although they are trying to save money in every possible way (repurposing old medals, no coffee or bread at team meetings, no traveling to oversee the regional events), the undeniable truth is that it will probably run out, and everything will end. Already multiple programs have been cut or significantly scaled back, including the health focused programming I am helping with especially. This is has meant that a large part of my work has focused on developing activities and resources that can be used for almost no money such as nutrition game shows, Zumba classes, and other fun ways to teach health and wellness topics. Fortunately I have experience with these types of lessons on a low budget as they are very similar to things we do in a club I founded at Duke, The Special Olympic Health Alliance. While these activities have been successful in Costa Rica as well, the Healthy Communities events themselves are few and far between due to lack of money for gas to transport ourselves and other volunteers.
It is discouraging to go to an event or practice and spend time working with athletes who get so much pure joy from the opportunity to participate in sports and experience confidence, inclusion, and respect when you know that any day that could all be taken away from them with no comprehensible explanation. There have been many bus rides back to my home where I rolled through a series of “What’s the point?”s. What’s the point of making all these resources when they may likely never be used? What’s the point of teaching these athletes the basic tennis skills when there may not be a Special Olympics Tennis program for them to even compete in when they are older? What’s the point of doing hundreds of medical assessments when there isn’t the manpower or resources to do anything if an athlete has a condition that requires follow up care? What’s the point of me coming here for an entire summer when all my work may become completely obsolete?
However, when the young athletes look at me as their coach with trust and excitement I realize what the point is — the point is accepting the harsh reality that sometimes the most fragile, vulnerable, and innocent among us are the ones at the greatest mercy of forces outside of my control. That means I have the responsibility to meet their trust not with dejection and melancholy, but to give them every bit of effort and confidence that I can, while I still can. Even if at the end of the day everything I do here is futile, that doesn’t mean it was worthless. I tried my hardest and will continue to try my hardest to make a difference in the lives and health of people with intellectual disabilities during the rest of my time here in Costa Rica and the rest of my life as an advocate and activist because, as my young friends continue to show me, failure is not an option.