There’s no guarantee as to when passion will find you. For Elizabeth Knightly, it was in high school when she began volunteering with Special Olympics along with her Junior Civitan club. Now decades later, Knightly considers her involvement with the organization to be a core part of her identity.
After moving to North Carolina, Knightly was reintroduced to Special Olympics by a colleague who shared her passion for the organization. Once she saw the joy of the Special Olympics athletes again, it was easy for her to dive right back in to volunteering.
For over six years, Knightly was on a volunteer committee for Special Olympics North Carolina (SONC) that helped run state-level events. She enjoyed every minute of working with her team and helping put on competitions for athletes around the state. But when SONC changed the structure to have local programs run the state-level events in their area, Knightly decided to take a step back.
After almost a year of not being involved with Special Olympics, Knightly couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing. Knightly quickly got in touch with Special Olympics Mecklenburg County’s local program coordinator Greg Morrill to see how and where she could be useful.
She joined the program’s steering committee in 2009 as the Volunteer Coordinator, which is comprised of several different volunteer leaders that give their support, time and input to whatever Special Olympics Mecklenburg County may need. Eventually, she took on the role of Volunteer Coordinator as part of the steering committee.
“Since becoming a volunteer with Mecklenburg County, Elizabeth has not only enhanced the athlete experience, but the volunteer experience, as well,” expressed Morill. “She has greatly impacted our program with her devotion and commitment.”
However, her passion helped push her to expand her role even further beyond the steering committee. In 2015, Knightly applied for the coveted Wells Fargo Employee Volunteer Leave program. Not long after finding out she had received the paid leave to volunteer with an organization of her choice for six weeks, Knightly began working with SONC’s Youth Initiatives Director Kelly Merkl to increase the number of Unified Champion Schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area by 50%, while also expanding on the program itself.
Knightly met all of her goals during her leave of absence and helped to create a new college program, group opportunities for educators and students to promote inclusion in schools, and a youth and educator summit training day. But for Knightly, the best part of the whole experience was being able to see each school in action.
“The youth and faculty’s passion and excitement for inclusion simultaneously struck a chord with me,” explained Knightly. “I was inspired to see how each school wanted to implement programs of inclusivity in so many creative ways.”
For Knightly, seeing people connect with Special Olympics and wanting to spread the word about the movement brings her joy. It reminds her of why she has invested so much time into Special Olympics.
“Whether its athletes, youth leaders, or volunteers, it’s rewarding to see what sprouts from the time you give in. It is a privilege to be part of it,” Knightly said.
And Knightly wants to continue to see what grows from her passion for Special Olympics for as long as possible. No matter what Special Olympics Mecklenburg County may need, Knightly is ready to help in any way she can. This dedication made Knightly stand out amongst her peers, helping her earn the 2016 SONC Volunteer of the Year award.
Though there is no guarantee as to how long you can hold onto a passion, the spark Knightly felt in high school has stayed with her ever since, something greatly appreciated by the Special Olympics athletes, volunteers and youth leaders she’s impacted. As she continues her career as a highly dedicated volunteer, it’s safe to say that Knightly’s passion will only continue to grow.
Congratulations on being named SONC’s 2016 Volunteer of the Year, Elizabeth!