In 1980, Pam Fazio’s daughter, Melissa, was born with an intellectual disability. “They told me she would be a vegetable; she would never walk or talk; put her in a home,’” Fazio recalls. “I said, ‘That’s not happening.’”
Eventually Melissa would achieve the intellectual ability of an 8-year-old, and she was able to attend special education classes at public school. When she was 15, Melissa brought home a flyer about Special Olympics track and field. “She went out for it and fell in love with it, and that’s all she wrote,” says Fazio, 61.
Now 39, Melissa continues her love affair with Special Olympics, competing in bocce, bowling, swimming and basketball. An “athlete leader,” she helps with fund raisers and speaks about the program to service organizations.
The more involved Melissa became, the more she “blossomed,” says Fazio. “She’s got friends, and she’s doing more than anyone thought she could do.” And Fazio found her own passion for the program growing, too, taking on more responsibilities every year. Today she’s Manatee County director of Special Olympics, overseeing more than 300 athletes age 8 to 70, coaching bocce, bowling and swimming, and training potential new coaches across Southwest Florida. Fazio also recently started Special Olympics basketball programs at Easter Seals and United Cerebral Palsy. It’s an all-consuming effort, yet she—and all her co-workers—are unpaid volunteers.
Their work has reaped big results. Manatee County Special Olympics has tripled the number of participating athletes from about 100 when Melissa joined in 1995 to more than 300 today, and it enlists some 100 volunteers—among them students at IMG Academy. “They’re wonderful,” Fazio says.
Last fall, Fazio received the prestigious Bill Crutchfield Award from Special Olympics Florida for her outstanding volunteer leadership—the second time she’s won the award. She is quick to share the credit. “It’s not just me,” she says. “It’s my whole team.”
And like so many of our award winners, she insists that she’s received far more than she’s given. “Special Olympics has strengthened me too,” says Fazio. “All these athletes are like my kids.”