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SOMO Athletes Changing the Game

Eunice Kennedy Shriver once stated, “You are the star and the world is watching you. By your presence, you send a message to every village, every city, every nation. A message of hope. A message of victory.”

The mission of Special Olympics Missouri (SOMO) is to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. The sports training and competitions provide the athletes continuous opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy, as well as share their gifts, skills and friendship with other Special Olympics athletes, and their communities. However, it goes way beyond just sports.

Special Olympics Missouri transforms the lives of athletes every day. With initiatives to activate youth, engage people with intellectual disabilities, build communities, and improve the health of the SOMO athletes – SOMO is changing the game for people young and old.

For 50 years, Special Olympics has been spreading the message: people with intellectual disabilities CAN – and WILL – succeed when given the chance.

Derek Sandbothe and Thomas Cleek are not only Special Olympics Missouri athletes, but they are the first athletes to be employed by Special Olympics Missouri.

“Special Olympics has given me a reason to live, to be honest with you,” Sandbothe said. “When I was in school, I was never really accepted, but I’m just glad that’s over and that I can actually have something to hold onto that has been a part of my life for a long time, and now, I’m at such a level in Special Olympics that not only am I competing in sports, but I’m also volunteering and helping others. I’m learning leadership skills.”

Sandbothe got involved in Special Olympics Missouri back in 2001 when he was working at Capitol Projects. After a few of his work friends invited him to a SOMO sporting event, he saw what Special Olympics was all about and soon began playing on the Jefferson City Parks and Rec basketball team. Being a part of the team and competing in Special Olympics was an eye-opening experience for him. “I was challenged by my teammates because they are just as competitive as me and the other athletes pushed me to be better,” said Sandbothe.

In 2006, he attended the first-ever USA Games in Ames, IA, as a part of the Team Missouri basketball team. About a month after the National Games, he received the opportunity to travel around Missouri, giving speeches about SOMO, telling his story and his experiences.

Through the years, he has been extremely active with participation in assisting and volunteering for the HQ staff with fundraising efforts and spreading the SOMO message. In 2017, Sandbothe was awarded the Outstanding Athlete award in recognition of all his hard work.

In 2015, he attended the first Athlete Leadership Program University (ALPs), from which he later graduated in 2018. “For my capstone project I made a big PowerPoint on what Special Olympics is and what SOMO and ALPs has done for me,” said Sandbothe. During his time in ALPs, he learned not only about communication and giving speeches, but he learned about leadership. He decided it was time for him to take on a much larger role. In 2018 he was presented the opportunity to co-teach a Global Messenger class to his fellow athletes. “Being able to use what I learned and teach my friends was such a great experience,” he said.

He is also a member of the Training for Life Campus (TLC) charter class of athletes who made it their mission to help raise money for the campus, by raising over $5,000.

On August 20, 2018, Sandbothe was hired as the first Campus Host. “Being the first hired athlete and Campus Host is a dream come true,” he said. “It means the world to me to work for an organization that has done so much for me.” This job has provided Sandbothe many opportunities that have helped him grow and gain more confidence. “My favorite part of my job is giving tours and getting to show people what Special Olympics is all about as well as the beautiful Training for Life Campus.”

Thomas Cleek began his journey with Special Olympics Missouri through the Young Athletes Program, in the Central Area, when he was 3 years old. Through the years he played many sports including: tennis, golf, bowling, volleyball and swimming. It was through SOMO that he found his passion for golf.

Cleek has had the opportunity to compete in golf during two USA Games; one in 2014 in New Jersey and one in 2018 in Washington.

In August, Cleek, along with seven other athlete golfers from the 2018 USA Games, was chosen to travel to New Jersey as a part of the United PGA Experience at the Northern Trust Open. He had the chance to meet up with old friends, make new ones, and receive golf tips from PGA Tour pros.The best part of the day was I got to play three holes with professional golfer James Hahn,” Cleek says. “He was so much fun to play with and talk to too. The advice that James gave me was unbelievable advice that I never heard of.”

On October 3, 2018, Cleek was hired as the second Campus Host. He applied for this job because he loves SOMO and thought this would be a great way to get involved outside of his sports. “This job means a lot,” Cleek said. “It shows that SOMO trusts their athletes and wants them to succeed. They want to help us athletes become a leader and give us the skills needed beyond sports and competitions.” He says this job has taught him responsibility and to be more independent.

Cleek was recently accepted into the Bear POWER Program at Missouri State University. This program is a two-year, five-semester, inclusive college program for individuals with intellectual disabilities. His future goal after he graduates college is to coach golf for SOMO. He wants to work with other athletes who have intellectual disabilities because he knows what Special Olympics can do to help them succeed.

Through Special Olympics Missouri people with intellectual disabilities discover new strengths, abilities, skills and success. Athletes find joy, confidence, and fulfillment — on the playing field and in life. Like Sandbothe and Cleek, athletes inspire people in their communities and elsewhere to open their hearts to a wider world of human talents and potential.

Derek Sandbothe and Thomas Cleek are demonstrating what Special Olympics Missouri hopes every athlete is able to do, and that is grow in confidence to be an active member within the community they live in.