Lakely Stapler’s big brother, Caige, is a former high school football player who loves to win. So two years ago, when he was playing football at Bob Jones High School and took a day off from school to help her out at the Special Olympics, he knew they were going to win—and they did.
Lakely, then 14, took home her first medal in several years of competition because Caige dragged her around the track—not typical volunteer behavior, but allowed for a big brother—at Milton Frank Stadium, both of them laughing the whole 50 meters. It was a special moment for Lakely, but also for her mother, Teresa Smith, who was cheering them on alongside her AEgis Technologies coworkers.
An Unlikely Diagnosis
What made the win even more special was that just a year earlier, the family had finally gotten a diagnosis that made everything else make sense. It had taken 13 years to figure out why Lakely couldn’t speak or why she had different developmental challenges than her twin brother, Tristan.
There are only 500 people in the world like Lakely. Yes, she’s happy—goes to bed smiling and wakes up the next day equally joyful, and that’s enough to make her stand out in a gloomy world. But there’s something that makes her even more rare. Lakely has Pitt Hopkins Syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by developmental delays, breathing problems and even anxiety issues.
While she doesn’t spend months getting excited for the Special Olympics—think about trying to tell a 2-year-old about an upcoming vacation—her face lights up the second she sees the stadium and knows what day it is.
“Once she gets there, that’s when I can see the big smile on her face because she is so excited,” Teresa said. “When people are cheering her on, it is the biggest smile I have ever seen. It really, really is rewarding to see that she knows that all of this is for her because … these children don’t get invited to birthday parties like other children. … At the Olympics she’s there, and she’s the one being cheered on. For a mother, it really is heartwarming to see that that child is getting the attention just like the other children.”
Special Olympics gives athletes the opportunity to build skills, friendships and confidence as they train and compete in a variety of sports. Athletes’ value is affirmed in every event, and they are shown respect and love in ways society may not always openly offer. It’s a place where athletes’ differences don’t seem so different.
It’s just a coincidence that Teresa Stapler works at the same company that sponsors the North Alabama Special Olympics track and field events each October. While the games have been going on for years, it wasn’t until 2012 that AEgis got involved. When the former sponsoring company decided to step down, they reached out to AEgis to carry on the good work. The first year AEgis employees just shadowed the former sponsoring company, learning the ins and outs of what it takes to put on the event. Then the next year, AEgis was ready to dive in—head first.
The Best Thing All Year
This isn’t a little event like an elementary school field day. Each Special Olympics event requires food, entertainment and organization for the 400 athletes, each of whom has two escorts, plus the other volunteers. It’s a lot of people to corral each year, but they’ve got it down to a science. Athletes come from elementary schools all the way up to adult centers to compete in track and field events—long jump, softball throw and running events.
In the months leading up to the Special Olympics, AEgis hosts the planning meetings at their facility. AEgis volunteers put in countless hours organizing, emailing and scheduling volunteers. Committee members also include school leads at school systems who coordinate more than 400 special needs students and athletes. Schools include Huntsville city, Madison city, Madison county, private schools, and adult centers.
Then, on the day of the event, work begins at 5 a.m. and goes straight through to 7 p.m. when they all crash into bed from sheer exhaustion.
Since the event includes providing lunches for everyone who participates, volunteers or even comes out to support an athlete, AEgis volunteers try to plan ahead. The first year AEgis was involved, they asked schools to tell them in advance how many athletes and volunteers would be there. But when they sent a representative down to where the lunches were being packed to pick up what they thought would be the correct number of lunches, it was a lot to manage, according to AEgis employees who were on-site that first year.
So the next year, Steve Hill, founder and CEO of AEgis Technologies, decided to cook lunch for everyone—all 4,000 people who would walk into Milton Frank Stadium on that day in October.
Georgina Chapman, one of the AEgis employees who helps coordinate with the Special Olympics team, describes this as the most meaningful event the company takes on each year.
Keep in mind, AEgis does a lot of good things each year. They work with Lincoln Village Ministries, Susie’s Wish, Habitat for Humanity, helping the deaf community and a handful of other philanthropic events. Still, there’s something about the Special Olympics that stands out.
“If you ever talk to Steve (Hill) about it, he says ‘You can’t go to this event and not feel moved and feel emotional to see these athletes that it takes everything in their power to jog down that track, and they’re so excited when they do,’” Georgina said.
Steve kicks off the day with a prayer followed by running the Olympic torch with the athletes.
“When you see these athletes start to run, and a lot of them are scared, they get really frightened to compete because there’s a lot of people and it’s very loud. So to see people encouraging them, and they actually cross the finish line or they jump, and they have a smile … it’s pretty amazing,” Georgina said. “I think we grow closer as a company every year that we do something like this.”
For the athletes, parents and volunteers who come out to the Special Olympics each year, the work of the AEgis employees does not go unnoticed. As Teresa cheers Lakely on year after year, she’s even more appreciative to the work that goes into making the event possible.
“Sometimes I look around, and I just feel like the luckiest person in the world to work with this group of people who come out and give their time and a lot of hard work to do this,” Teresa said.
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