By: Rebekah Schilperoort
A few years ago, it was difficult for Bill Herman to imagine taking on a volunteer role. But everything changed during a 2015 work trip to Johannesburg, South Africa, for the Special Olympics African Regional Athlete Congress, as part of the multi-year partnership between Special Olympics International and Microsoft.
Bill was there to film an ad highlighting how Microsoft's Cloud technology empowers Special Olympics to manage data for their 4.9 million athletes. He attended the event's opening ceremony and exhibition games.
"It was incredibly moving – what really hit me was how much of an impact it had on me," Bill said.
Bill was also invited to participate in the bocce ball events with Special Olympics athletes – it was his first time directly interacting with people with intellectual disabilities, or ID.
"You could really see how much the events meant to all the athletes," he said. "It made me realize the true charter of the organization – it's just as much for the athletes as it is for society, in terms of developing relationships and bridging the gap between people."
The experience sparked a personal revelation for Bill that he didn't expect.
"I was not devoting any time to giving to others in my personal life," he said. "My focus was 100 percent work, but I had room to do more. That experience highlighted an opportunity that I would have never stumbled upon myself."
Bill returned home to Seattle, eager and inspired to get involved with Special Olympics Washington. He thought he could plug into an existing Special Olympics bocce league, but when he found out there wasn't one, Bill did the next best thing: he created his own.
On a recent Monday evening, about 30 Special Olympics Washington athletes milled around the sprawling bocce ball courts at Rhein House, a restaurant in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. Smiles, laughter, and a familial air set the tone for what was the first practice of the league's fifth season.
Bill made his way around the group, greeting returning players and welcoming new faces. They'll practice here together every Monday night for the next eight weeks as the team prepares for local tournaments and to send two of its own athletes to the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games this summer in Seattle.
Special Olympics Washington helped Bill compile the league's roster, and many of the competitors, who come back year after year, are seasoned athletes who participate in a variety of sports.
Last year, Bill took his league to the Special Olympics Washington 2017 Summer Games where they took home five gold medals. To keep that momentum going, Bill plans to hold skills workshops this season to help the athletes further improve their game.
"It's very competitive, and the athletes are always trying to beat their personal best," said Bill, who has also signed up to be the volunteer manager for the bocce competitions at the 2018 USA Games this summer. "But what I also like is that you still have that feeling of family."
None of this would exist without Microsoft's $25-per-hour volunteer match program, Bill said. Every hour he volunteers managing the league is matched by Microsoft, which Special Olympics Washington then reinvests into paying for practice space and other league expenses.
Bill has learned more about bocce ball than he ever thought he would, but more importantly, his volunteer work has been fulfilling on a personal level.
"It's made me realize that anyone can be friends," he said. "Special Olympics' mission is all about celebrating differences and creating a world that accepts and values the gifts that we all bring to our communities. I think this is a beautiful and powerful vision in a world that sometimes feels so divided, and it's through volunteering with Special Olympics that I can do my part to make that world a reality."