Special Olympics Pennsylvania #50for50: Jessica Flacinski

#50for50: Volume 42
▪️ Jessica Flacinski
▪️ 24 years old
▪️ Elk County

“Singing is my passion. I like to put my voice to use. When I was young, I didn’t speak for the longest time. But then, all of sudden, I started learning words through singing. I sing the Star-Spangled Banner for the swimming events at Bradford. I’ve been doing that for about five years. I sang Annie as well, at the Community Theater. Fiddler on the Roof, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, The Sound of Music. I love Rogers & Hammerstein and I love Disney. Usually, somebody is my buddy on stage and it’s very fun. In high school, they told me to come to the tryouts for chorus. Mom never realized I’d be allowed to do it, but Mr. Brooks and Mr. G told me to go and try out. Some nights I was practicing up until 10 at night. I learned the choreography and I’d dance or sing or do background vocals. Then, during my senior year of high school, I sang ‘The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow’ acapella in front of the whole school. When I was done, everyone stood up and I got a standing ovation. … I was seven years old when I first started running. I was doing track and field. I have a video from that event. It’s set to music and I play it every chance I get. We have bowling and bocce. Track and field. We have softball throw. I love bowling and basketball. Last summer was my first time at Summer Games. It was fun. I was thinking ‘I’m going to sleep over this week.’ I played cards. We got to play softball throw and I cheered for Amanda. Everybody was falling on the floor laughing. I had fun. … I work at school now. At Elk County Catholic. I do the tables. I clean them and pick up the trash. We got trained in school to wash tables. The school district would pay us to wash tables every day. We practiced sophomore year, junior year we had the job and senior year we did it without supervision. Before this, I worked at Best Western and I was there without a coach. But then they had a furlough because of COVID. I also go to AHC and learn skills. I learn to write my name, learn to cross streets, learn walking, learn about money, filling out papers, handwashing and all that. We play pool on Wednesdays and I go to McDonald’s for lunch on Thursday. We go on picnics, go to the park, go to the Kinzua Bridge, the Parker Dam. So I definitely keep busy. On Saturday we had a big picnic. Everybody took an outdoor chair and sat around the fire. … One of my favorite things to do is pictures. I do very fine, detailed colored pictures. Color by numbers. I love to keep organized. And I keep mom organized, too. I’m a great grocery shopper. I know exactly where everything is. So, we’re keeping busy. We have a list of everything we have to do and we take one or two things every day and we get them done.”

As told by Jessica & her mom, Caroline.

Special Olympics Pennsylvania #50for50: Sue Ann Jacobs

#50for50: Volume 41
▪️ Sue Ann Jacobs
▪️ 63 years old
▪️ Area P

“I first started hearing about Special Olympics when [my son] Nathan was in middle school. We tried a variety of things. He was two years behind his grade level. He didn’t go to middle school until he was 13, but we insisted he be allowed to participate in the school’s ski program. We were all skiers and we figured that would help him and teach him to maybe ski differently than we could. It was pretty disastrous. They didn’t really teach the athletes how to ski. They just pushed them from one instructor to the other. So soon after, we signed Nathan up for a Special Olympics swimming program in our area. That first year I just was on the sidelines, helping where I could. I got in the pool and stuff but didn’t have the necessary certifications to be a volunteer. Then the next year, I got certified in swimming and I’ve been involved for 16 years. It’s really rewarding. When our athletes first came, we had one or two who could doggie paddle on their own and now we’ve got some really good distance swimmers. Whatever your kids are involved in, that’s what you’re involved in. And Nathan is still involved in Special Olympics at 31. … [My husband] Doug and I started to get involved with skiing as well. Then I signed on to coach bocce and Doug started with golf and bowling. It’s Nathan’s social life. It’s his fun, it’s his friends, it’s who he would be with anyway. To have him doing something productive is great. … Our son’s not really a competitive person. He’s thrilled, but he would never show it. When they got picked to go to Nationals I’ve never seen a reaction like I did out of Nathan. He burst into tears and almost didn’t understand what was happening. He knew he was being considered, but it just shows you how the thought processes and what people do is very different in how it comes out. … Being at the USA Games was fantastic. In Seattle, when they came in for the Opening Ceremonies, Nathan was waving to everybody so hard. It was just, the excitement he was feeling just warmed my heart. Seeing his excitement, that’s why I do it. … I’ve been doing the Sports & Competition Coordinator job for seven or eight years. There’s a demand on you, but we just keep doing it and supporting it because it’s so rewarding to see the excitement and fun and accomplishment. This COVID stuff has really, really hurt. Nathan’s life has been totally put on hold. When we weren’t allowed to even train within ourselves for being high risk, he took it really hard. But we’ve been doing the at-home training for bocce. We go to the park and it’s small and there’s not anybody there. If there’s not going to be winter sports, it’s gonna be pretty hard. Everything’s on hold right now and we’re really isolated. … We’ll do Special Olympics as long as we can. In our Pike County part of Area P, we all know each other pretty well. It’s a great thing to do for the whole year. Whatever season we’re in the athletes will always say that’s their favorite. We love it, I love it. There’s many times we’ve said Nathan is a blessing to us and there are many times he’s been a blessing to others. We can’t wait for it to come back in person.”

Special Olympics Pennsylvania #50for50: Hillary McFadden

#50for50: Volume 40
▪️ Hillary McFadden
▪️ 36 years old
▪️ Area M

“One year I wanted to do speed skating and I was at school. I was 16 at the time. But then they said, ‘Well no, you can’t do that. You’re blind.’ And I said, ‘Alright, that’s it. I’m not doing it.’ But then I went to this program where I learned how to deal with blindness and they said I could do anything I want to do, the sky’s the limit. So when I was 17, I asked again if I could do speed skating. And they said, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ And I said, ‘Well sure I can!’ So we fought for it. Me and my mom, we fought for it. And I signed up and suddenly I was part of the team. It was exciting. It was really exciting, uplifting. It’s great. I feel free on the ice. It’s like I’m zooooom, really fast. ‘That is amazing, I can’t even do that,’ they say. That makes me feel really good. When I skate, someone skates backwards in front of me and tells me where to go. … I was blind ever since an infant. I was born premature. I weighed only one pound, a little over a pound and seven or eight ounces. By the time I was five, I had my eyes removed because of complications from surgery, and so they removed them and now I have these. It’s good. If it weren’t for the surgery, I wouldn’t have been skating today. I also have high-functioning ASD, which they used to call Asperger syndrome. … When I was 20 or 21, I started winning gold medals. My favorite memory is when I first learned to read braille and I started picking it up. Now I have a business where I make braille menus for restaurants that need them. And another favorite memory is when I first learned Spanish. I speak Spanish. Hablo Español. … We have a rule on our team that is ‘SEA.’ It stands for Sportsmanship, Effort, Attitude. That’s the acronym. And I think it’s neat. I don’t know what I want to do eventually, but hopefully I’ll still be in Special Olympics.”

Special Olympics Pennsylvania #50for50: Haleigh Sommers

#50for50: Volume 39
▪️ Haleigh Sommers
▪️ 24 years old
▪️ Fayette County

“I was a part of a special needs baseball team called the Miracle League when one of my friends on the team told us about Special Olympics. At first, it was more for something to do on Sundays. My first sport was bowling. I liked the sport, but I didn’t like how crowded it was. It was a lot of waiting around. We would wait for an hour, so I wasn’t so sure how I would like it. But it ended up being a good season and I ended up enjoying it. Bowling is one of the sports I enjoy and that I can do with little amount of help. Most other sports I need a lot of help, but this gave me more independence. I have cerebral palsy and I’m in a wheelchair, so I use a ramp for bowling. It’s more of just hoping for the best and trying to line up your ball in the ramp in the middle of the lane. Sometimes that doesn’t work. It’s more however the ball ends up. I play bocce, too, and they made me a special bocce ramp to use for that. It looks kind of like a tube and I can aim it and play that way. … I’m a Global Messenger for Special Olympics. I’ve done athlete surveys and given speeches. It wasn’t really one of my top things, but I was looking into starting school and I thought it would teach me more public speaking. I’m not a very confident speaker. I was hoping it would help and it has, just to get me out in public more. It’s way easier to do the speeches now than it was. I hope I’m getting the message out and letting people know more about it. We did one speech at the Women’s Business Society and that was a really great one. It seemed like they were interested. I did one for my local Rotary Club. That was a really nice one to do. And we did one at the Sheetz in Brownsville on their opening day and that was really neat, too. I really enjoy it and I’m really glad that I get to represent Special Olympics in that way. … I’m in school now. I do online schooling through PTC [Pittsburgh Technical College]. It’s still my general education courses, but I’m hoping to work at this place called Transitional Paths to Independent Living (TRPIL). It helps people with disabilities get out in the community and get jobs and it helps them with learning how to advocate for themselves. It helps them get equipment and things they need for a job. They have meetings where they talk about things that could be better in the community and how you can make it better. … I haven’t done the training for this yet, but I’m also the Athlete Representative for my county. I’m hoping to start a communications class to teach the athletes in my county better communication skills and how to talk to people. I just thought it would be a good way for our county to get together and work together. I’m very passionate about people with disabilities getting out and advocating for themselves and being independent. That’s my goal and I would love to help other people with that as well. I’m always willing to do anything in my community if they need help.”

Special Olympics Pennsylvania #50for50: Nick Kitzko

#50for50: Volume 38
▪️ Nick Kitzko
▪️ 25 years old
▪️ Lawrence County

“I live here in Lawrence County with my dad and brother. My brother is older than me. It’s nice here. I like it. I get to do a lot of different things and spend time with friends and family. A couple of years ago, I did basketball first with Special Olympics. I heard about it from someone I knew and I wanted to try it out. I thought it was just something to get me out of the house. But I enjoy it, it’s very fun. I enjoy hanging out with a lot of people. You meet different people and make new friendships that last a lifetime. I also do golf, volleyball and I tried bowling. I wouldn’t change it for the world. … Golf is my favorite. I’m better at it than most of the other sports. I practice a lot. When I was at Carnegie Mellon, I shot a 45 on the first day and then a 45 on the next day and that was one of my favorite moments. I think I was able to [shoot so low] because I did a lot of practicing and I was using a new Taylormade driver that my coach, Chuck Jones, gave me. It’s my favorite club. A lot of people have trouble with the driver, but I try not to. I love the freedom of being on the golf course. I just love the freedom out there. … School was a little bit tough, depending on the day. It was alright. People were either nice or they were mean. If they were mean, I just ignored it. I walked away. And I feel like I’m a bit stronger now, yep. I work at a janitorial place. I’ve been there for six years or so. The pay is good and I like it. I’m saving to fly to Austin, Texas for my birthday in December. I want to go there to visit my cousin. I’ve been there before, this would be my second time. It’s nice. There’s a lot more to do down in Texas and I like flying on an airplane. It’s fun. … I’ll help anybody if they need help. I’m just a kind person. I’m a very outgoing person. I’m blessed to have an amazing girlfriend, Kasey. We’ve been going out a couple years and I love her with all my heart. I just love meeting new people and making friends.”