U-M Athletic Department Finds Special Smiles From Special Olympics

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Playing sports is one of the great joys in life. For those with disabilities, sports can be a difficult experience -- until they participate in events like the Special Olympics.

Another one of the joys in life is learning the joy of giving back to the community or a cause.

Zach Eisendrath
Zach Eisendrath

So it was no surprise when the University of Michigan Athletic Department team members that volunteered for Tuesday's (May 14) Special Olympics event at Saline High School returned to work Wednesday with a great attitude and big smiles on their faces.

Zach Eisendrath, assistant director of public and media relations, was the poster boy for the entire athletic department team.

When asked about the previous day's events he smiled and said, "It was awesome, it was incredible." He called these Special Olympians "real athletes" and said this is what "sports are all about."

The games are serious and competitive, and with the variations in talent, the volunteers work hard to make the games fun.

Zach, who works with the U-M football and men's tennis teams, had one young girl at bocce ball who couldn't speak. Physically he demonstrated how to throw the ball and where to throw it so she could enjoy the competition. In another bocce game, a young boy in a wheelchair knew exactly what to do. Zach played him straight up -- and lost. When Zach talked about the match, the smile grew, and his eyes lit up.

His counterparts from U-M who volunteered for the event came back to work with similar stories and feelings that matched the most beautiful day of the spring to date. The Special Olympians showed how they could overcome the roadblocks in their lives, and this U-M team came back to their offices with a positive attitude -- the type of attitude volunteerism can provide.

For Zach, the Special Olympics have a particular meaning. His little cousin has Down syndrome. Zach learned the art of volunteerism years ago, and this time he was excited to be part of giving back to his new community. It is part of his personality, and it creates the euphoric feeling that makes life rich and worthwhile. And every time he works a Special Olympics, he comes back more amazed than the last time.

It is almost impossible to oversell the Special Olympics. This is one sports event that lives up to the hype.

"I signed up for the event and then realized today's the day," said Eisendrath. "I went to the track, helped out, came back and thought wow, this was a wonderful day. I really felt like this was of one the most fulfilling days I had in quite a while."

A portion of the Special Olympics mission statement is to give "continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness and athletic skill, demonstrate courage, experience joy, and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes, and the community."

For the volunteers, participation in Special Olympics provides additional benefits. They have a better perspective of their own surroundings, and they just feel good.

Zach and the 80 U-M Athletic Department members didn't volunteer so they could feel better about themselves, but when they returned to work on Wednesday, the Special Olympics Spring Games helped make everyone feel a part of something bigger than oneself, and that made everyone smile.

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