Other than occasionally being confused with Westchester, New York, West Chester, Pennsylvania does not have much in common with The Empire State. However, that changed recently when a popular social media account profiled several athletes, families and volunteers at the Special Olympics World Games.
Humans of New York, a social media account with over 20 million followers, began in 2010 as a way for photographer and blogger, Brandon Stanton, to reach his goal of photographing 10,000 New Yorkers. Since then, Stanton’s work has taken him all over the world, photographing individuals and including the stories they share as captions. In March, Stanton traveled to Abu Dhabi to profile people at the Special Olympics World Games. Here is where he met Loretta Claiborne, a 65 year-old multi-sport athlete and Pennsylvania Special Olympics icon.
For Claiborne, a York County native with an intellectual disability, running was an escape from the cruelty she faced from other children in her neighborhood. After being summoned to the office over an argument with a classmate, the counselor at her work program gave her a paper about the Special Olympics. Claiborne initially wanted to quit after the first day, however, her mother – whom Claiborne says, “did not play”– encouraged her to stick with it. Eventually, she found herself at what was then West Chester State Teachers College for her first competition in 1970.
Claiborne remembers it well, recounting that it was an overnight event complete with 135 athletes, ceremonies and a dance. Claiborne was the only female out of the three individuals who came representing York County, and she won each of her three events. This experience at West Chester got her hooked on the Special Olympics and she’s been competing ever since.
While still competing at her age is impressive enough, Claiborne’s involvement in the Special Olympics has taken her beyond the tracks and courts and into boardrooms, television screens and even the White House. She has made a name for herself as a Special Olympics ambassador, taking her message of inclusion and empowerment far and wide.
Claiborne travels extensively for competitions and speaking engagements, and she returned to West Chester several years ago for a symposium. She encourages West Chester students with disabilities to join the Special Olympics as athletes and for others to become involved as unified partners and volunteers. Claiborne reminds us that in doing so, “You learn to play together, you learn to work together and you learn to live together.”
Olivia Bortner is a fourth year student majoring in marketing. OB876952@wcupa.edu