Athlete Leadership Program Empowers, Provides Growth Opportunity

Special Olympics Southern California athletes look up to peers like Paul Hoffman. The 60-year-old not only excels in sports, but he’s become an example of what individuals with intellectual disabilities are capable of when given the opportunity to tell their story – in their own words.

In 1992, Paul was named the first Global Messenger for what was then known as Special Olympics California – before the program was split between Northern and Southern California. By 1995, according to Special Olympics Southern California’s first President Richard Van Kirk, a handful of athletes began public speaking training and the Global Messenger program started to take off.

“It made a tremendous difference in the public awareness and appreciation for Special Olympics,” Van Kirk said. “That helped us significantly. We began scheduling them to make presentations around Southern California.”

Global Messengers are Special Olympics athletes trained in public speaking, who help spread the message and vision of the movement as well as the benefits gained through their participation in Special Olympics.

The role also puts the athletes in a position of power, giving a voice to the movement and showing society a transformation in individuals who may not have otherwise had an opportunity to grow socially.

“It was a great honor,” Paul said.

Before that moment, Paul’s role as a public speaker started when he was thrust into the part at a black-tie affair in Beverly Hills. He was one of six athletes being recognized for an achievement and the occasion called for a representative to say a few words.

“My coach said, ‘Well, I think Paul can do it,’” he said.

Paul remembers practicing his speech over and over. He nailed the speech, and the room gave him and his fellow athletes a standing ovation. Afterward, as several people approached him, he was asked if he had done any public speaking.

The answer was no, but it wouldn’t be long before Paul would spend a weekend in Oregon for a public speaking training program.

“I’ll be honest; I was getting frustrated. I wasn’t getting it,” he recalled.

While he’s estimated that he’s delivered more than 300 speeches since that initial training, Paul will be the first to tell you that he’s still like so many others prior to a speech.

Nerves take over. Some doubt may creep in. Pressure starts to mount within.

Then, he steps up and starts talking, and he finds a rhythm. It took until “my third or fourth speech,” but Paul eventually got more and more comfortable. He started to realize, with the help of some advice, that the audience doesn’t know the speech beforehand so any stumbles along the way can easily be shrugged off.

“It’s something that I care about,” Paul said. “It’s made me grow in the sense of being a stronger person.

“You’re doing a speech and you’re the person that knows the information. They’re here to hear you. They don’t have a copy of your speech so you can kind of ad-lib, at times, and I think that kind of made me feel a little more comfortable.”

So many more athletes like Paul have since overcome any fears or doubts through public speaking. They blossom from shy individuals into leaders through Special Olympics programs and resources.

It’s opened the door for more opportunities, too.

Paul is currently on the U.S. Athlete Input Council. He was selected after a nomination from current SOSC President & CEO Bill Shumard, and the process included an extensive interview and video submission.

From Nov. 10-17, he will travel with the group to the Dominican Republic for a leadership conference.

“It’s given me the chance to voice an opinion from the athletes’ point of view,” Paul said. “I’m doing a survey in the whole United States about how Special Olympics changed their life and made a difference.”


Athletes around Southern California continue to be trained as Global Messengers.

Today, Special Olympics Southern California serves 37,100 athletes in Southern California. The organization also has expanded the role of athletes via the Athlete Leadership Program, which current athlete and staff member Dustin Plunkett oversees.

Other programs include Athlete Input Councils, which empowers athletes like Paul to voice their opinions and recommend a course of action about various facets of the year-round sports training and competition programs in their local areas. Other roles include serving as advocates for the health and wellness program, becoming volunteers and coaches, and sitting on the Board of Directors.

At the heart of it all is the public-speaking component and the boost in self-confidence that follows. More than 120 athletes in Southern California have been trained as Global Messengers and spread the word of acceptance and inclusion throughout the state.

“I think it’s made more Special Olympics [athletes] come out of their shell,” Paul said. “Every athlete has a different story. I’m not the same as [SOSC Global Messengers] Debi Anderson or Jeff Scott. Everyone has got their own story, how they got to where they are.

“I just think a lot of people look up to me because I can speak clearly and get the message across, but everybody has their own flair.

“There’s so many Global Messengers now. It just depends on what area you live in. Dustin can say, ‘OK, I need somebody in L.A. and call someone to do the speech.’ You need to have variety (in the stories told). I think it would be good to train younger athletes that can get their message across – the 8-year-olds, 9-year-olds, and the 10-year-olds.”

To learn more about Special Olympics Southern California’s Athlete Leadership Program, or to book a Global Messenger to deliver their inspirational message, visit our website.

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