He made Special Olympics VA a winner

Published 5:24 pm Tuesday, June 14, 2022

By Holly Claytor

Guest columnist

After 36 years, 22 at the helm, Special Olympics Virginia’s President Rick Jeffrey is turning in his whistle — although he’s never really been a whistle sort of guy.

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Most would describe him as a coach; in fact, many address him this way on the day to day. But it’s more than just a term given to the leader of a statewide sports organization because it’s about, well, sports. It’s because he truly is.

Good coaches listen. Good coaches learn. Good coaches love. And since he stepped foot onto the Special Olympics fields of play on a hot day in August 1986, Rick Jeffrey has been all of those things – and more.

After 14 years serving in several roles of growing responsibility at the organization, Rick assumed the role of president in 2000 and if you’re looking for a good sports analogy (something Rick also loved), he hit a home run. Or perhaps since he’s ready to swing his club into retirement, a hole in one.

Under his leadership, the organization’s financial soundness has been unmatched, with a current reserve fund of more than $4.7 million and a $1.7 million endowment that was set up during his tenure to support strategic program initiatives. He has helped the program grow and diversify its fundraising channels, to include large-scale events such as Polar Plunge and Plane Pull, as well as individual and leadership giving, a space few Special Olympics programs currently champion.

Prior to the pandemic, Special Olympics Virginia had the most Unified Champion Schools of any Special Olympics program in the country – and this number continues to bounce back as restrictions are lifted. He restructured the team and created positions that allowed the staff to develop, grow and support new programs such as Healthy Athletes, Young Athletes and ongoing fitness opportunities.

A sports lover through and through, he continually grew the number of sports offerings and competition experiences in Virginia. He launched the first high-performance tournament in the country, the Special Olympics Virginia Tennis Xperience, an annual invitational for top-level Special Olympics tennis athletes across the United States and in some years even other countries. He held numerous roles on national and regional committees to include serving as the United States Leadership Council (USLC) Sports Committee chair.

Rick, also the longest-serving Special Olympics Virginia president, strengthened the Board of Directors to include leaders from across the state who provide financial support as well as important and valued guidance on how to grow and sustain the organization not only for the future, but for once-in-a-lifetime events like the COVID pandemic. He changed the culture of the program, allowing staff to be innovative, creative and collaborative, but always focused on organizational goals.

It’s about sports. And it’s not about sports at all.

Beyond the business, though, Rick notes his greatest accomplishment is steering the vision of the organization to run through the lens of sports. In the beginning, he said, while important, Special Olympics was more of a social experience: an opportunity for families and people with intellectual disabilities to come together and be a part of a community.

That community remains one of Special Olympics paramount strengths, but for Rick, it also was about how sports changes the athletes – and how it changes us.

“At its core, Special Olympics is about what is possible. We’ve shown people, athletes, parents, families and even ourselves what’s possible if they choose to see it. I’m not sure there is any work more incredible than that.”

Great game, Coach.

Holly Claytor is vice president of development & communications for Special Olympics Virginia. Her email address is hclaytor@specialolympicsva.org.