Recent tornado devastates Special Olympics training center

A little after midnight on Thursday, May 23, my wife, our dogs, our hedgehog (yes, a hedgehog) and I were all hunkered down in our basement in Jefferson City, Missouri, watching the news as a storm moved across the state. Local meteorologist, and avid Special Olympics Missouri (SOMO) supporter, Zach Paul mentioned on-air that there was a confirmed tornado in the area and the path was headed toward our Training for Life Campus.

The Training for Life Campus is the first facility of its size and scope for people with intellectual disabilities. Through a capital campaign, we raised $14.5 million and opened the campus in September 2018.

The 44,000-square-foot anchor of the campus serves as our headquarters office and houses more than 20 staff members. It also has an arena, multimedia rooms and health exam rooms. The rest of the 16.5-acre campus has a four-lane track and multipurpose turf, and there are plans to add a softball field, bocce courts, tennis courts and more. To the athletes who trained there, this wasn't just a facility -- it was their home.

After the storm passed, we drove to the campus and, in the dark of night, saw our worst fears in front of us. Every south-facing window was blown out, the glass entryway crashed into our lobby and there was a sizable hole in the arena roof where rain was pouring in. It wasn't until morning that we were able to see that the multipurpose field and track were also severely damaged.

The pictures of our athletes celebrating their proudest moments that hung on the walls were now scattered throughout the campus and in tatters. The spots they occupied were now replaced with grass, mud and various pieces of debris.

The next morning, the staff gathered to catch our collective breath and figure out how to move forward. The weekend of May 31 to June 2 we were supposed to have one of our three yearly statewide competitions -- the State Summer Games -- at Missouri State University in Springfield. More than 2,000 athletes, coaches and family members were set to attend.

We had a decision to make: Do we use this moment to show the strength of our program and lean on our SOMO family to galvanize us through this tragedy, or do we pull back and focus on a community and staff that is hurting?

We labored over the decision for a couple of days before finally deciding to call it off. It was the first state competition canceled since 2006.

In a news release, SOMO board chairman Gary Wilbers said, "As a board, we cannot in good conscience expect our team to execute these games after suffering the devastation of losing the campus that they, and so many of you, have worked so hard to make a home for our athletes. Their physical, emotional and mental health must be the top priority at this time as we rebuild the Training for Life Campus."

Athlete Lynna Hodgson from Lee's Summit, in an interview with Fox 4 in Kansas City, said, "I was pretty disappointed because we train for two to three months for this. I kind of was hoping they wouldn't cancel it, but I totally understand why they did."

Our campus was the perfect physical representation to the public that our athletes -- people with intellectual disabilities -- aren't cute and are in fact real athletes.

This campus was their place to prove to the world that they have more to offer if they are just given a chance and are surrounded by people who believe in them.

It was their way to show that they are "real" athletes.

It was their way to legitimize their athletic achievements.

It was their home.

We needed to take time to figure out how to get the campus back up and running for our athletes as quickly as possible. We needed to take time to heal with the rest of the Jefferson City community.

Contractors said that while the structure of the building is still in good shape, the roof, flooring and all of the windows will need to be replaced. At the very least, they said, it'll be many months before we're back up and running.

More than anything, it's just all so disappointing. We were just getting the hang of what programming we could offer at the campus, from Young Athletes (program for ages 2-7) to daily adult programs with exercise routines, adaptive sports training and much more. The last few months we've had the chance to show the community and the state what we can offer, and now we're starting all over again.

As students from local high schools and student-athletes from Mizzou baseball and wrestling helped us clean up last week, we saw just how much our program and our athletes mean to others. As much as those volunteers helped and as corny as it may sound, it was our SOMO athletes who helped us find a way to get through one of the worst weeks in our program's history.

Their messages of support and presence at the campus sharing food, laughs, smiles and hugs helped us put everything into perspective. Sure, they were sad that their home was damaged, but they knew that we'd be just fine in the end. Their strength and resiliency helped us see that as well.

It's important to keep in mind that all we lost in this building are materials and time. We had insurance; we will rebuild. As staff members, we assumed our athletes would be devastated, but they were the ones who showed true strength and helped us find perspective and hope in the midst of tragedy.

I'd like to invite you to follow us on all of our social media channels as we tell the stories of this rebuild. It's going to be a long process, but we'll get through this together. If you are interested and able to help us rebuild, please text SOMOREBUILD to 71777.