Special Olympics Athletes Take Team-Building Skills from the Field to the Workplace
By Terrence Nowlin
Mike Madden is a goal-driven employee and gold-medal athlete. He knows the importance of staying focused. Being productive at work and scoring during Special Olympics competitions give him similar feelings of achievement.
"It feels like you pretty much went out and accomplished something," he said.
Jay Hannon is a national medal-winner and representative for Minnesota in Special Olympics, as well. He holds two silver medals and a bronze for swimming in the 2014 National Games. Like Madden, he's competed in a number of sports over his 17 years with Special Olympics.
"I do bowling, basketball, swimming, track and field, floor hockey and power lifting," Hannon said. "I like giving my best effort in all the sports I compete in. It does not really matter if I'm in first. It means more to do your best—if you do your best in everything you do, good things usually happen."
To celebrate the crossover between successful work and play as well as the 50th anniversary of Special Olympics, SourceAmerica is hosting the Journey of Employment job fair July 21. The event offers athletes career counseling and the chance to connect with potential employers is part of the Special Olympics Global Day of Inclusion at Soldier Field. Participating employers include Ada S. McKinley Community Services, Anixter Center, Bank of America, Goodwill Industries of Metropolitan Chicago, Goodwill Industries of Southeastern Wisconsin and Opportunity Secure Data Destruction.
An estimated 80 percent of people with disabilities are currently left out of the workforce. SourceAmerica is working to reduce that number, said Senior Vice President for Growth Ellis Rosenberg.
"We make connections for people in the country's largest and most diverse minority group—people with disabilities," Rosenberg said. "Employers are looking to tap into this talented pool of potential employees and the Journey of Employment is a great way for the two groups to engage."
Madden is an employee at MDI, a Minneapolis nonprofit organization in the SourceAmerica network of employers that offers assembly and packaging of products like storage boxes, recycling bins and tote bags.
"I work on jobs and help assemble certain things for other companies that need stuff put together," Madden said.
Madden has worked for MDI for 31 years, but his dedication to Special Olympics is even longer. For 35 years, he's competed in the organization's games at the regional, national and international levels. That's taught him how to be better at his job, he said.
Janna Langer agrees. She is an employment support specialist at MDI. She makes sure employees like Madden have the tools they need to do their jobs. Langer said that Madden is in a role that requires juggling interactions with numerous people and performing a variety of tasks.
"(It's about) working as a team and having that productivity goal … encouraging their coworkers to work toward that goal," she said. "Special Olympics teaches someone how to be the best that they can be, and those skills transfer to the workplace, too."
Madden said draws from expertise learned by competing in track and field, softball, basketball and his favorite, floor hockey. Langer caught a particularly glaring omission from Madden's list.
"He won a gold medal in 2010 and that was for golf," she said. "Yep, he won a gold medal for nationals."
Hannon has applied that mantra to his work at Burlington Coat Factory in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. He works as part of the recovery team with employment supports through Partnership Resources, Inc., another SourceAmerica nonprofit agency.
"Recovery means that you clean up the floor and get the store really nice for the customers so they can shop for their clothes," he said.
Hannon's mother Pat Hannon said that in his four years working at Burlington, the younger Hannon has seen career advancement and raises.
"A lot of times, people with special needs or disabilities are unable to secure jobs," she said. "If they do secure jobs, a lot of them are underpaid … Special Olympics has given him an opportunity to try new things. That helps in the work as well. I think it helped in securing a job that was paid like the rest of the store staff."
Hannon and his mother said Special Olympics has helped with social interactions, something he'd struggled with.
"My disability is autism," Hannon said. "That means that my brain processes differently than any average person. Special Olympics has helped me to socialize with other athletes with disabilities on the same team."
That team mentality transfers seamlessly to his work group of five employees.
"I like that there is lots to do and learning new things—that I can do several different jobs at my store," he said. "I like working with my group."