'Big Red One' Soldier makes difference in lives of Special Olympics athletes
August 13, 2014
When not deployed, Soldiers spend their free time a number of ways, including giving back to the community.
Staff Sgt. Jeffery Kirk, uplift platoon sergeant, Company E, 2nd Battalion, 34th Armor Regiment, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, spends part of his time volunteering with the Manhattan, Kansas, chapter of the Special Olympics, coaching basketball, volleyball, track and field and other sports to children and adults with intellectual disabilities.
Kirk's son, Colten, 16, started participating in the Special Olympics about four years ago. His father spent time with the team before becoming an official volunteer more than two years ago.
"He's pretty awesome," Kirk said of his son. "You put him on a court with a basketball, and he's going to want to participate."
The Soldier said Colten, who is non-verbal and on the autistic spectrum, plays volleyball, basketball and track with the Manhattan Special Olympics program. Most athletes, both children and adults, typically participate in a variety of sports, from softball to bowling, Kirk added.
Kirk informally volunteered for some time before his wife, Michelle - whom he met through the program - encouraged him to become an official coach.
"I would always volunteer. I would always help," Kirk said. "She was like, 'You coach now, why don't you just do the paperwork to become a coach?'"
The staff sergeant said he revered the Special Olympics coaches before becoming one himself, often picking up meal tabs to show his appreciation for their hard work.
"You guys do a lot, and you're special to me and my family," he would explain.
Volunteering with the Manhattan Special Olympics is rewarding on an emotional and sociological level, Kirk said.
"You look at these kids and what they put up with and you look at how they deal and the adversity they deal with," he said. "You look at these kids with all the admiration in the world."
The Special Olympics provides year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults, giving them continuing opportunities 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 the organization's website.
Special Olympics athletes are diverse in their abilities and ages, Kirk said.
"You're dealing with someone with extreme cerebral palsy who is wheelchair bound, then you go to a kid who's just got a speech impediment and a learning disability, who can run like the wind. You're actually mentoring that kid," he said. "One of our athletes is 53, still playing basketball, and then you've got the 10-, 11-year-old kids. There's a lot of rewarding aspects of being involved with that community in general."
Volunteers also help raise money for the Manhattan Special Olympics. The organization is helping to staff an upcoming race put on by the Color Run. Volunteers that sign up for the Sept. 13 event through the group's Facebook page at www.facebook.com/manhattanspecialolympics, help fund trips to regional and state competitions.
"We are very strong and becoming stronger," said Kim Schnee, president, Manhattan Special Olympics board of directors, about the program, which has more than 100 registered athletes. "We have a lot of participation."
Schnee said Kirk has exceeded her expectations as a volunteer.
"Right away, Jeff was right there," she said. "What I really appreciate about him is that he asks a lot of questions. He wants to understand. He really does want to do the best job he can do, and I appreciate that about him."
Kirk said Soldiers should find time to volunteer in their local communities because of the personal growth one gains from the experience.
"It doesn't matter what you're doing," he said. "What you get from volunteering is pretty special."