Balancing act

July 19, 2002

Tim Cox was selected for his work with Special Olympics by Scranton Gillette Communications and the American Traffic Safety Services Association as the recipient of the first SGC/ATSSA Members Humanitarian Award. Cox is southwest region sales manager for Cataphote Inc., a Jackson, Miss., maker of specialized glass beads and thermoplastic pavement markings.

Cox got started with Special Olympics way back in 1977. His first task was to keep score at the Missouri Special Olympics championship basketball tournament.

Tim Cox was selected for his work with Special Olympics by Scranton Gillette Communications and the American Traffic Safety Services Association as the recipient of the first SGC/ATSSA Members Humanitarian Award. Cox is southwest region sales manager for Cataphote Inc., a Jackson, Miss., maker of specialized glass beads and thermoplastic pavement markings.

Cox got started with Special Olympics way back in 1977. His first task was to keep score at the Missouri Special Olympics championship basketball tournament.

He was a member of the Blue Springs, Mo., Jaycees at the time and volunteered to help. Eventually, he was helping organize the annual event.

“It was the first time I was ever around any athletes,” Cox told Roads & Bridges. “It was a very rewarding time watching the athletes perform and grow and the effect they had on the family and on the town.”

Blue Springs is a city of about 50,000 people.

“The town since has adopted that event as one of the things that our city identifies itself with. Every March we have a weekend where we bring 1,200 athletes and have four or five hundred basketball games in a three-day period. It’s something that involves the whole community.”

The school system and the city government both cooperate with the organizers, and Special Olympics uses most of the gyms in the school system sometime during the weekend for holding games.

The city also supports the tournament with funding to help cover the cost of travel, housing and meals for the athletes.

“In Special Olympics, the athletes never have to pay anything to participate,” Cox pointed out. “So it’s incumbent on us to raise funds for housing and food while they’re at an event and transportation to the event. Those are things that we provide the athletes, and the people of the town have been really supportive.”

Cox remembers one athlete in particular from that time: “He was playing on one of the teams in the gym in which I was keeping score. We struck up a conversation a couple of times during the event. I worked that same gym the next two years and saw him continue to grow as a player.”

About five years later, Cox was on business in St. Louis, where this athlete lived. Cox pulled into a Denny’s to have a cup of coffee before visiting an account. “Here he comes in with his lunch pail,” recalled Cox. “He was on his way to work. He had gotten to the point where he was living on his own and was supporting himself.

“But the wild thing was about three years later he came as assistant coach of the team he had been a member on about 10 years prior. That was pretty exciting. We’ve got a lot of athletes that are helping coach the teams in the various sports. That kind of growth of the individual is something that makes the whole thing worthwhile.”

Social and motor skills

Growth of the individual is part of the Special Olympics mission. The program offers a chance for mentally retarded people to “develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community,” according to Special Olympics.

To qualify for Special Olympics, a person must be at least eight years old and have mental retardation, cognitive delays or significant learning or vocational problems. Because there is such a wide variety of ages, the athletes are placed in age divisions. They also are placed in ability divisions based on an assessment of their individual skills.

The athletes have an opportunity to compete at the local level and from there at the regional, state and international levels. Special Olympics holds summer and winter games every four years, the year before the other international Olympics. The next Special Olympics World Summer Games will be held in Dublin, Ireland, June 20-29, 2003. The next Special Olympics World Winter Games will be held in Nagano, Japan, Feb. 26-March 5, 2005. The first Special Olympics World Games were held in Chicago in 1968.

The Missouri organization is planning to send 25-30 athletes to the next Special Olympics World Summer Games in Dublin. Cox plans to be there with them.

The trip will cost money, and the organization is busy now to make sure the expenses will be paid. The athletes will even have a few days for sightseeing in Ireland before the competition begins.

The Special Olympics oath reads: Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.

In Cox’s words: “It’s great to see how the athletes can develop and become what they weren’t. They used to be shut away, and now they can have more full lives. Watching that growth is what’s really good.”

Teamwork adds to the benefits of competition. Cox mentioned that when the program was founded in the 1960s by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, professionals thought the athletes would have difficulty working as a team.

“Working as a group seems to make a big difference,” Cox related. “I got into the program involved in a team sport, basketball, and they’ve continued to respond to that effort. They all seem to be able to grow, and competition seems to help them.”

The big break

Much of Cox’s time with Special Olympics has been spent helping raise money.

“One of the things about being in sales is there’s a little bit more flexibility,” he said, “so that I can move my time around a little bit.”

That flexibility has been important in allowing Cox to devote time to his Special Olympics activities. It gives him the freedom to choose.

“Mostly, the free time I have has been filled with Special Olympics and then with family activities. It’s choosing to take the time and spend it with the athletes and the people in the program.”

Cox spent 13 years on the board of Missouri Special Olympics, two of them as chair. The Missouri Special Olympics organization has about 12,000 athletes in the 26 Olympic-type sports, 4,000 volunteers and an annual budget of about $4 million.

He started out primarily in fund raising and moved into board development and membership recruitment. One creation of his was a golf tournament that raised about $60,000 over four years.

Although he left the board three years ago because of a term limit, he is still active in a group of past board chairs. He also still does fund raising by visiting major donors. And he is starting work with a consulting group in the area of board member development. He’ll be assisting other Special Olympics boards, especially in Latin America, as an advisor.

One thing Cox gets out of his participation in Special Olympics is a break from the demands of work: “None of the pressure of the activities of work are involved when I’m working on a Special Olympics activity or event. They’re separate, so it’s a complete break and it allows a release from the normal stress that comes from work.

“On the family side, from time to time I’ve had a chance to bring the family in as part of it,” he continued, “so we get to do it as a group. Watching how the athletes interact with their families kind of re-confirms why we all have that family bond.”

Enthusiasm is infectious, and Cox’s enthusiasm sometimes spreads to his family. His daughter got involved while in college as the activities person for the business fraternity at the University of Missouri. She and her fraternity helped stage a couple of the events there.

“That was kind of neat to see her get involved,” Cox said. “They’ve all helped some when we were working with the basketball event back in the early ’80s.”

Along with Special Olympics, Cox is active in ATSSA. He’s a past member of the board of directors and a current member of the board of the ATSSA Foundation as well as a member of various other committees and task groups.

People from ATSSA also have participated in Special Olympics fund-raising events, mostly in the form of jumping into ice-cold lakes. The police force in Lake of the Ozarks, Mo., hosts a “polar bear plunge” every year, in which people raise money for charity by jumping into the lake in the middle of winter. Several ATSSA members have risked frost-bitten toes for the sake of Special Olympics.

Spreading the enthusiasm

Cox appreciated receiving the SGC/ATSSA Members Hu-manitarian Award, but he appreciated more the chance to share his enthusiasm with the full ATSSA membership at the banquet in February when he was presented with the award.

“Most of my activities are known kind of on a one-by-one basis, but to be able to speak to the full ATSSA family, that was probably the highest part of the honor,” he said.

His advice for Roads & Bridges readers? “If you have an opportunity to attend a Special Olympics event, you’ll walk away charged and thrilled and uplifted by the effort and the pure competition that the athletes put out. It’s what sport is all about.”