Sometimes Margie Hunt tears up a little when relaying stories about her unique role at the helm of Special Olympics Oregon (SOOR). Her close interactions with Special Olympics Oregon athletes, many of whom she has come to know as friends, have touched her heart in countless ways over the years. “This is uniquely inspiring work. It is so joyful. You cry a lot, but out of joy.” In her nine years as CEO, Margie has taken the local Special Olympics chapter—a vast, multifaceted entity with numerous moving parts—from struggling to thriving, and she remains committed to its continual growth and success.
One of the factors contributing to the recent success of Special Olympics Oregon is Margie’s track record of leadership in marketing, public relations and television production. She has produced the March of Dimes Foundation’s telethon, and served as executive director of Doernbecher Children’s Hospital Foundation. Margie’s experiences as vice president of the Oregon Business Association and chief of staff to Oregon Speaker of the House Lynn Lundquist have inspired her to create such events as the Governors’ Gold Awards. These kinds of events raise the profile of Special Olympics Oregon, and garner the support and philanthropy the organization needs to continue to serve the community.
Margie’s work with the Special Olympics became very personal for her when one of her three sons had a child named Conrad, born with Angelman syndrome. Margie contributed a chapter to a book entitled, In the Company of Angels, written by Conrad’s mom (Margie’s daughter-in-law). When Conrad was diagnosed with Angelman syndrome at two years old, their family talked to the geneticists, asking them, “Will Conrad know we love him?” The geneticists said no, but Margie counters, “Let me tell you—Conrad proved them wrong! He does know who loves him, and he definitely knows who he loves!”
What is the most rewarding part of your role with Special Olympics Oregon?
The most exciting part of being CEO of Special Olympics Oregon is that our mission is to inspire greatness in our athletes, but what happens is they inspire greatness in everyone else! Let me give a little background: Special Olympics is a year-round program that serves individuals with intellectual disabilities. This is the largest disability population in the state, affecting one in five families. They may have physical disabilities as well as intellectual disabilities. Special Olympics Oregon serves 10,000 at this time and there are over 80,000 that we could be reaching. We have spent the last few years really building up the organization. When I first came, the organization was about to close its doors. We have been able to turn it around effectively. Great credit goes to our board and volunteers, as well as Oregon individuals and companies, who have helped us tremendously. Special Olympics is in every state and in 160 countries worldwide. A delegation of five athletes and three coaches from Oregon just went to South Korea for World Winter Games this year and came back with quite a few medals! What drives you is realizing that these participants are just like everyone else. They are athletes. The only difference is that their intellectual age is younger than their chronological age. It’s such an amazing feeling when an athlete comes up to you at a Special Olympics event and shows you the medal they earned saying, “Look what I got!” They know they earned it, and it builds confi- dence and a sense of achievement. There are no “gimmes” in Special Olympics.
What are some experiences in your background that inspired you or led you to this role?
I was raised by parents who instilled the importance of giving back. I thank my parents for that. I started out working in marketing, public relations and television production. One of the major projects I produced was the March of Dimes telethon, which introduced me to the not-for-profit community. From there, I was brought in to produce the Doernbecher Children’s Hospital telethon, and I ended up running the Doernbecher Foundation. That experience taught me a lot about philanthropy. The Doernbecher telethon is a big show—imagine square dancers dancing for 24 hours in Pioneer Courthouse Square and all the logistics involved producing that event! I was raising three sons through all of this. After my work there, I was brought on to work as chief of staff to Lynn Lundquist, who was then Oregon Speaker of the House. When he ran for secretary of state, I helped manage his campaign. Then he came on board as president of the Oregon Business Association, and I became the vice president. From there, I came here, to Special Olympics Oregon. It didn’t really occur to me how helpful my political background would be in my current role, but it was. The organization needed a turnaround. Special Olympics has a strong brand, but we needed a corporate event. I contacted Governor Kulongoski, and that was the start of the annual Governors’ Gold Awards, which recognizes greatness in Oregonians and companies.
What are some of your favorite programs presented by Special Olympics?
Unified Sports is a program where individuals with intellectual abilities and those who don’t have disabilities compete together in sporting events. The experience is valuable to all the participants. Also, Unified Sports creates an opportunity for kids who usually don’t get the chance to participate in competitive sports to do so (by making a team, for example), so it’s great for everyone. I wish my three sons would have had an experience like that in school. There was recently a front-page article in the Oregonian about Unified Sports. There is a federal mandate being discussed calling for school sports and other activities to be more inclusive, with more disability access. Special Olympics is already setting an example in that area, and is in sync with the mandate. It’s terrific.
What are some of the rewards that a Special Olympics athlete may take away from the experience?
For many athletes, Special Olympics becomes the center of their lives. It’s their social outlet. Studies have shown that Special Olympics participants tend to do better in school, they tend to be more high functioning, hold jobs, and some may even eventually live alone. Sports Illustrated wrote an article a while back saying that Special Olympics is the way that all sports should be.
That’s very inspiring! Do you have a favorite Special Olympics story?
There are so many stories! It’s always the little victories that I love to hear—families who are told their child might never walk, then, they get involved with Special Olympics and their child walks. In one race, when a runner lost his shoe, all the other runners went back to the start and waited for him to put his shoe back on before continuing the race! At another race, there was a young man with cerebral palsy. He would go ten yards and fall, and then get up. His family members were on the sidelines, but of course they couldn’t jump in and help. He kept on getting up and continuing the race. I think it was the fourth year that he completed the entire course. The crowd was cheering! I get to see that magic all the time. You can’t write these athletes’ stories. They write them. You don’t know what they can and can’t achieve. And as far as they are concerned, they have no boundaries.
Can you talk a little about Project UNIFY?
In Oregon, we call Project UNIFY “the Respect Campaign.” In terms of this program, Oregon has been leading the nation of Special Olympics chapters. It’s about training, leading and motivating Oregon students to demonstrate respect for everyone, but most especially, people with disabilities. The students and our athletes are the spokespersons. Many students learn valuable leadership and organizational skills as they plan school assemblies, and other exciting activities for the entire student body, to promote our campaign. It’s wonderful to see the support from the school community! Les Schwab Tire Centers just became the major sponsor.
What are some upcoming Special Olympics Oregon events to watch for?
This year’s Special Olympics Oregon Summer State Games (proudly supported by A-dec) will take place July 13th -14th, at sporting venues around Newberg, Oregon. There will be state championship competitions in four sports: athletics (track & field), bocce, golf and softball. More than 1,500 athletes and 500 coaches from across Oregon are expected to partici- pate. The events of that weekend will also include the Law Enforcement Torch Run, and Olympic Town (presented by Burgerville), a festival which will include local food, activities, carnival games and live music. Come on out to Newberg to support these amazing athletes, and bring friends! In September, Nike sponsors our Youth Games, a daylong SOOR sampler, held on the Nike campus. People who haven’t participated in Special Olympics events can give them a try. Hundreds of families sample events and participate in skills clinics. It’s the most amazing day. It’s great to see the parents, brothers and sisters cheering the athletes on. One year, a severely autistic boy ran to the end of the track and hugged his dad. It was the first time they had ever hugged. We also have the Governors’Gold Awards on October 29th. It’s a unique event because sitting and past governors select Oregon companies and individuals to present awards for greatness. We now have an incredible library of Oregonians who have made an impact, and are iconic because of their involvement in Oregon’s growth. Recipients of Governors’ Gold Awards have included Nike, Intel, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Pendleton Round-Up, Roth’s Fresh Markets, the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Wieden+Kennedy, as well as some innovative individuals and startups. The theme is “Celebrating Greatness in Oregonians.” It’s a fantastic showcase for Special Olympics Oregon. There is no event like it in the country. Another event we have each year is the Polar Plunge. Crazy Oregonians jump into cold water in February for pledges to raise funds for Special Olympics. I did it this past February—jumped into the Deschutes River and the Columbia. We also have some “super plungers” who plunge every hour for 24 hours! (For a more detailed schedule of events, go to soor.org)
Oooh, brrr! Okay, so how can people in Portland who want to support Special Olympics Oregon get involved or show their support, besides—or in addition to—the Polar Plunge?
There are lots of ways to get involved: donate funds, be a coach, or volunteer at a one-day event. It’s a large organization with lots of moving parts. If you want to change the world, you can do it here. At Special Olympics, you can make a difference just by showing up—even just by being a fan cheering in the stands. It’s very immediate, and that’s incredibly rewarding. I would really like to express my appreciation for the volunteers, donors and sponsors, and also the staff at Special Olympics Oregon. We have a great team, and a terrific board of directors. Seeing the goodness of the human heart in this experience has changed how I view other roles I have participated in. I feel that I see through the glass more clearly now. I take my inspiration from the athletes themselves; they are the true leaders in our organization. They teach our entire staff the path to real achievement— that we can’t go backwards! We take their examples from the sports arena into our work in the board- room, the office and out to the community, to help us find the critical funding that we need. We want to match our athletes’ tenacity and commitment. At Special Olympics Oregon, I want to help ensure that our drive to succeed is as determined as our athletes’ drive to work hard, compete wholeheartedly, and finish the race. That way, we can make sure Special Olympics Oregon will be here for generations to come.
The 30th annual Bite of Oregon (presented by Amica Insurance), Oregon’s premier culinary festival, will be held August 9th-11th. The Bite is expected to draw more than 55,000 foodies to Tom McCall Waterfront Park to celebrate Oregon’s bounty! This year, the Bite will continue to feature some of Oregon’s best food, wine, craft beer and entertainment to benefit Special Olympics Oregon (www.biteoforegon.com, or Like Bite of Oregon on Facebook).