"Being involved with Special Olympics was a blessing," Jon Dyer says of the organization that helped him meet his wife Kate and leave an impact on their children, Jordan and Sariah
A Massachusetts couple has the Special Olympics to thank for changing their lives after they met while coaching, got married, and eventually welcomed two children — both of whom now participate in the games.
Jonathan and Kate Dyer can hardly imagine what their lives, as well as the lives of their kids Jordan and Sariah, would look like had they not chosen to get involved with the Special Olympics during the late ’90s.
“I think we would be totally different people,” Kate, 45, tells PEOPLE. “We’ve learned so much from Special Olympics and the interactions with everybody… I think it just gives you an entirely different perspective and makes you look at life differently.”
“I shudder at the thought [of life without the Special Olympics,]” Jon, 49, adds. “It’s been a part of our lives more than it hasn’t… Without it, I would have never met Kate. So right there is a major downfall. It’s a part of our lives because we want it to be, and we’re fortunate that we had that support network and that outlet for Jordan.”
The couple’s love story began on March 2, 1997, when Jon was 26 and Kate was 22, and both were coaching basketball for an adult Special Olympics team in New Bedford.
At the time, Jon was preparing to say goodbye to the gig after his longtime coaching partner quit to focus on his family. But that all changed when Kate volunteered for the position and walked into the gym for the very first time.
“Kate walked in the door and my knees buckled when I saw her,” Jon recalls. “Beautiful young lady, and she still is. She helped coach that night, and the next day I went to work [and my coworker asked], ‘How was your weekend?’ I said, ‘It was great, I met the woman I’m going to marry.'”
“It was love at first sight for me,” he adds.
Though Jon instantly knew that Kate was the one for him, Kate says she wasn’t immediately set on her own feelings. Over time, however, she found herself falling in love with the way Jon interacted with the athletes.
“I think it’s a very attractive quality to see a man interact with people kindly, especially people with disabilities, and to be able to work with them and have patience and understanding,” she explains. “It made him even more attractive than he already was, but it definitely took me a little bit longer!”
Once their first basketball season ended, Jon and Kate went on their first date. The Raynham couple has been together ever since, tying the knot on Aug. 21, 1999, before welcoming two children: Jordan, now 17, and Sariah, now 16.
From the time they were infants, Jordan and Sariah were on the sidelines of every field and court, attending Special Olympics tournaments and practices with their parents.
But before Jordan reached age 3, Jon and Kate started to notice that their son’s behavior and emotions were stronger than other children his age.
“We had warning signs from the beginning,” Kate explains. “Jordan had strong emotional responses to daily life activities. He struggled with sensory issues and behaviorally he was a challenge.”
Doctors later confirmed that Jordan had Tourette syndrome, ADHD, OCD, anxiety, and was on the autism spectrum — a diagnosis that may seem daunting to some parents, but was something Kate and Jon felt confident they could handle due to their time coaching.
“Having had the experience with Special Olympics from early on and interacting with different athletes with different challenges, I think I recognized and so did Jon, that Jordan might have some of his own challenges,” Kate says.
Even so, Jon and Kate didn’t let those difficulties limit their son’s potential — both on and off the field. In fifth grade, Jordan started competing in the Special Olympics, where his father says he’s been thriving ever since.
“It’s given him an arena to enjoy his athletic abilities,” Jon explains. “His eye-hand coordination is ridiculous, his natural strength is very good for someone his age… This gave him a venue to excel and to show those skills.”
“Additionally, a lot of the athletes look up to him as a leader,” he continues. “That has put him in a position where I think it’s really helped his self-confidence.”
Though Sariah does not live with any disabilities, she is also heavily involved with the Special Olympics as a Unified Partner, competing on several sports teams and assisting with coaching, drills, and athlete recruitment, according to Jon and Kate.
Like her brother, Sariah has also evolved over the years, her parents say.
“It was just as rough, and in some respects, more difficult on her in the early years,” Jon explains of their “charismatic” and “patient” daughter. “She has come a long way with her feelings towards Jordan because of the disparity of attention that we had to give towards him to manage his behaviors and his challenges.”
“Only in the past couple of years has she come to understand her brother more,” Kate adds, noting that Sariah is now working toward becoming an early childhood educator for children with disabilities, thanks to Jordan’s influence.
Today, the Dyer family continues to be involved with the Special Olympics, and Jon and Kate hope to one day attend a U.S. game or World’s game with their athletes.
Kate and Sariah also participate in an annual initiative called “Over the Edge,” where they rappel 200 feet down the side of a hotel in Boston to raise money for the Special Olympics. (In four years, the mother-daughter duo has raised approximately $22,000.)
Reflecting on their experiences with the organization, Jon and Kate believe helping out has given them a new perspective on parenthood and life.
“I know I would not have been as an accepting or understanding parent,” Kate shares. “I think that if we hadn’t had that [coaching] experience, we wouldn’t be looking at life the way we do now.”
“The biggest thing I learned raising my own child with challenges was not to judge anybody else,” she continues. “Because you can see that child falling apart in a store and people can judge and think that it’s bad parenting… And there’s always so much more to it.”
Adds Jon: “You’re going to get more out of it than you put into it. We’re constantly having parents [say], ‘Oh, thank you for giving so much and thank you for all your sacrifices.’ That’s crap. We get lifted up.”
“I mean it’s exhausting, there’s no question about it, and it does take time commitment, but it’s incredibly rewarding,” he continues. “For me, to let [it] be the tune-up for understanding the challenges or being better prepared to understand the challenges that my own son has… Being involved with Special Olympics was a blessing.”
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And Jordan, though young, already feels the impact that the organization has had on his life and also hopes to follow in his parents’ footsteps down the line.
“It’s always been a part of my life and always will be a part of my life,” he explains. “It’s taught me how to be a leader… It’s really fun [and] I have matured a little bit since starting.”
“There was a 97-year-old guy doing something for the Special Olympics and I want to be that 97-year-old guy still playing basketball… in the 21-plus league,” Jordan continues. “I want to be that guy with my team.”
“It means a lot,” he adds. “And I’m hoping it will stay this way, but [my parents] will be there for me and with Special Olympics for the rest of their lives. I know I will be for the rest of mine.”