By Naomi Cahill
What began as a high school volunteer service project has grown into a passion for Johnny Hekker.
Now, the Los Angeles Rams’ All-Pro punter is helping launch this year’s Albertsons Companies Foundation, The Vons Foundation and The Pavilions Foundation campaign – where shoppers can donate at the checkout counter of Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions stores in Southern California on July 8 – August 1 to support Special Olympics Southern California athletes. To find a store near you, click here.
Hekker has been involved with Special Olympics as a volunteer since he was a high school freshman. He needed to complete a 40-hour volunteer project and chose Special Olympics. His love for helping people with intellectual disabilities came from his father, who worked in a facility in Washington that helped adults with intellectual disabilities. Hekker’s love for sports also made Special Olympics the perfect volunteer option.
“I knew I loved athletics, I had a heart for people with disabilities, and so, it was just a natural fit,” he said. “I’ve been giving my time ever since and it’s just an amazing organization to be a part of.”
As a volunteer, Hekker helped out at basketball games, soccer tournaments, and swim meets, where he kept score, refereed games, and ran sheets. He later on brought his enthusiasm for volunteer work to his professional life with the Rams, who were involved with Special Olympics even while the team was in St. Louis.
Four months after the Rams moved back to L.A., Hekker reached out to Special Olympics Southern California via his own personal Twitter account.
In June, Hekker was a special guest at the 2017 Summer Games at Cal State Long Beach, where he spoke during the Opening Ceremony and met with athletes.
Hekker, whose favorite Special Olympics sports to watch are basketball and track and field, said the joy for sports that Special Olympics athletes possess keeps him coming back.
“I played basketball all while I was growing up, so to watch the skill that some of these athletes have and just how much fun they’re having running up and down the court is just something that I have felt many times as an athlete. So, I know that they’re enjoying it and loving what they are doing,” he said.
The unselfish sportsmanship of Special Olympics athletes is a unique quality that one may see while volunteering at a Special Olympics event. Lifting up your team mates and getting along with your competitors is a quality that Hekker also feels is valuable in professional athletics.
“It’s just the pure enjoyment of the sport, not for self-promotion but just getting out, competing, loving the sport, picking up your teammates, and competitors, if they fall and need help,” he said. “There’s so much out here that these athletes exhibit that is important to have no matter what you’re doing. If you care about the people around you and have fun doing what you’re doing, you’re gonna go far.”