Flashback: "Because of my brother"

[Editor's note: This story originally published in 2016.]

They were pulling teeth on the concourse of the Robins Center Saturday. That’s not a metaphor — real teeth were being extracted from real mouths by real dental professionals.

And that’s not all. On Tarrant Court down the stairs, other health care workers did physical therapy, offered eye exams, and ground glasses on the spot for patients.

Saturday’s health fair in the Robins Center was part of Special Olympics Virginia’s annual Summer Games, which returned to campus for its 32nd year. It was my first.

“Special Olympics is a life-changing, great opportunity for people with intellectual disabilities and for you,” Rick Jeffrey, president, told me, pointing right at my chest.

And he meant me, personally.

“This is as much for the community as it is for the athletes,” he said. “If you view these guys differently, their lives get better.”

More than 1,300 athletes and another 700 supporters in their delegations stayed on campus and in nearby hotels for these two days promoting health and fitness for people with intellectual disabilities. Robins Stadium was the hub, home to the opening ceremony Friday night — where Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe did a ceremonial signing of the ABLE Act, which allows families to invest in tax-free savings accounts for disability-related expenses — and track-and-field events on Saturday, when temperatures soared into the 90s.

Elsewhere on campus, athletes competed in tennis on both the Richmond and Westhampton courts and in bocce on Crenshaw Field, home to Spider field hockey.

They also competed around RVA, with softball in Glen Allen, bowling in Short Pump, and aquatics competition in western Henrico County.

I chatted with Coach Matt Basdeo in the Robins Center Saturday morning. Basdeo’s brother would run the 100m and 200m in about an hour, but first he was getting an eye exam. Basdeo had four athletes at the Virginia games. He runs two-hour practices for them most Saturday mornings and coaches them at competitions “every month or so,” he said.

He does it, he said, “mostly because of my brother. I feel like I’m making a difference when I’m out there.”

Upstairs on the concourse, Matt Cooke was in scrubs overseeing a small army of volunteer dentists, hygienists, dental students, and lay people involved with Missions of Mercy, an outreach effort by the Virginia Dental Association Foundation. In 18 dental chairs lined up where Spider basketball fans buy concessions each winter, they were taking X-rays, making mouth guards, cleaning teeth, filling cavities and even, when necessary, pulling teeth, all for free.

“It’s a full clinic, a joint project between VCU School of Dentistry and the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine,” he said, pointing out the clean side and dirty side for their instruments. All told, he estimated they’d treat around 200 patients.

The focus on health care is critical, said Jeffrey, the Special Olympics president. Nearly two-thirds of people with intellectual disabilities need glasses, he said, and more than a third suffer from some kind of preventable tooth decay. But this is also a population that is marginalized in a variety of ways, including in access to health care.

He mentioned a power lifter named Robert Harris, who was competing this weekend.

“This is where Robert Harris gets his health care,” Jeffrey said. He estimated the value of health services provided at the Summer Games at around $450,000.

Outside, the heat on the field at Robins Stadium was withering, but the events continued. Fans congregated in tents near the track or in the high seats that offered shade. Their aim was clear: Cheer every athlete, from the ones who ran 100m in a dash to the others who struggled but persevered to complete the 25m walk.

“This is a great piece of community engagement,” Jeffrey said, gesturing toward the crowd. “You see folks from all over the community here. This is a place of unity and inclusion today. Athletes are getting healthy, fitter, and better, with a chance to be successful and win.”

Photos by Matthew Dewald and courtesy of Special Olympics Virginia.