From Special Olympics Virginia:
After 36 years, 22 at the helm, Special Olympics Virginia’s President Rick Jeffrey is turning in his whistle – although he’s never really been a whistle sort of guy.
Most would describe him as a coach; in fact, many address him this way on the day to day. But it’s more than just a term given to the leader of a statewide sports organization because it’s about, well, sports, it’s because he truly is.
Good coaches listen. Good coaches learn. Good coaches love. And since he stepped foot onto the Special Olympics fields of play on a hot day in August 1986, Rick Jeffrey has been all of those things – and more.
It was Providential
Rick graduated from Hampden-Sydney College in 1975 with a Bachelor of Arts in English and 5 years later, earned his Master’s in Education from Virginia Commonwealth University. He taught English in public and private schools in Amelia and Henrico for 10 years, but it was his evening work as a basketball referee on the hardcourts that led him to Special Olympics Virginia.
While working a college game in Roanoke in early 1986, he found himself chatting with Pete Lampman in the locker room before the game. At the time, Pete was the assistant executive director at Special Olympics Virginia. During the conversation, he shared with Rick that they were looking to expand their team and passed along his business card.
A few weeks later, Rick found the card in his referee bag and decided to give Pete a call. From there, Rick would say it was providential. He met with Pete that spring, attended Summer Games and then, on August 16, 1986, started as Region Director of the Central Region, which now encompasses the James River, Piedmont and Capital regions.
“If that game had been postponed because of snow and the referee crews had changed,” Rick said, “I wouldn’t have been standing there in the locker room with Pete and I would probably have stayed on my academic path.”
Path to President
Rick worked as a Region Director for one year before shifting to the Director of Sports & Competition. At that time, his work focused on not only the sports side of the organization’s state-level events, but also all the logistics of meals, housing and volunteers.
As that role evolved, so did Rick’s interest in growing as a leader in the organization. He began to get more engaged in fundraising, staff development and human resources, and in 1994, he took over as the Director of Programs. Three years later, he became the Vice President of Programs, but still knew he wanted to make a bigger impact.
“I knew there were more things to do to strengthen our program,” he said. “Build a solid, bigger team; hold ourselves more accountable; grow our Board of Directors; shape a better financial structure so we would have more financial security. I wanted to make us stronger and better.”
So like any good Coach, he did.
Building the Team
Rick assumed the role of President in 2000 and if you’re looking for a good sports analogy (something Rick also loved), he hit a home run. Or perhaps since he’s ready to swing his club into retirement, a hole in one.
Under his leadership, the organization’s financial soundness has been unmatched, with a current reserve fund of more than $4.7 million and a $1.7 million endowment that was setup during his tenure to support strategic program initiatives. He has helped the program grow and diversify its fundraising channels, to include large-scale events such as Polar Plunge and Plane Pull, as well as individual and leadership giving, a space few Special Olympics programs currently champion.
Prior to the pandemic, Special Olympics Virginia had the most Unified Champion Schools of any Special Olympics program in the country – and this number continues to bounce back as restrictions are lifted. He restructured the team and created positions that allowed the staff to develop, grow and support new programs such as Healthy Athletes, Young Athletes and ongoing fitness opportunities.
“I was the point guard,” he said. “In basketball, point guards make sure all the people on the team are in the right position to be successful and score.” Good coaches learn.
A sports lover through and through, he continually grew the number of sports offerings and competition experiences in Virginia. He launched the first high-performance tournament in the country, the Special Olympics Virginia Tennis Xperience, an annual invitational for top-level Special Olympics tennis athletes across the United States and in some years even other countries. He held numerous roles on national and regional committees to include serving as the United States Leadership Council (USLC) Sports Committee Chair.
Rick, also the longest serving Special Olympics Virginia President, strengthened the Board of Directors to include leaders from across the state who provide financial support as well as important and valued guidance on how to grow and sustain the organization not only for the future, but for once-in-a-lifetime events like the COVID pandemic. He changed the culture of the program, allowing staff to be innovative, creative and collaborative, but always focused on our organizational goals.
His work in strategic planning and “wildly important goals” brought accountability to the team, which encompassed not just the staff but also the volunteers, athletes, families and Board. And for Rick, it’s always been about the team. Good coaches listen.
“It’s a team game. Building a team, keeping your team together, listening to them, creating bench strength and helping people grow is one of the things I’m most proud of,” he said. “If you’re not evolving, you’re moving backward. My goal is to leave here and no one will notice because we have the best team in the country and the Special Olympics Virginia train will keep chugging merrily down the tracks.”
It’s about Sports. And it’s not about Sports at all.
Beyond the business, though, Rick notes his greatest accomplishment is steering the vision of the organization to run through the lens of sports. In the beginning, he said, while important, Special Olympics was more of a social experience: an opportunity for families and people with intellectual disabilities to come together and be a part of a community.
That community remains one of Special Olympics paramount strengths, but for Rick, it also was about how sports changes the athletes – and how it changes us.
“If people with intellectual disabilities can do things on the field of play, they also can do things off the field of play. They can become a better person in their community, in their school, at their work, in their home. We, through sports, have the opportunity to teach people with intellectual disabilities – and those without – lessons about teamwork, collaboration, communication and accountability.”
Need an example? Rick could give you hundreds. If you need to find him at an event, he’s sure to be on the sidelines talking to families and athletes about their lives, interests, sports and what else we can do to support them. He’s one of the best storytellers around and if you listen closely, you’ll hear his voice break with emotion at times. Good coaches love.
He will tell you about how Kyra Campbell’s life was changed when she met Anna, a Special Olympics Virginia athlete at her high school. Because Kyra took the time to have a conversation with someone who was different, her life – and Anna’s – changed. It’s about the parents of a skier who didn’t believe their son could ski the advanced course independently, but we did – and when he did make it down successfully, his parents thanked us for believing in their son.
Grace Anne Braxton getting inducted into the Virginia Golf Hall of Fame. Karen Dickerson running the Boston Marathon in under three and a half hours. Jon Fried solidifying his space as the greatest Special Olympics tennis player in the world. David Egan speaking at the United Nations. Paul Marretti being included in the Knights of Columbus book “By Their Works” featuring Knights like John F. Kennedy who’ve made great impacts on society. Frank Stephens being invited to the Pierce Morgan show and thanking Ann Coulter, who drew vast criticism after calling President Obama the “r” word, for giving him three million new friends on social media.
“My greatest rewards are the accomplishments of all of our athletes. At its core, Special Olympics is about what is possible. We’ve shown people, athletes, parents, families and even ourselves what’s possible if they choose to see it. I’m not sure there is any work more incredible than that.”
Rick will walk down the hall to his office for the last time on June 30. He’ll pack up 36 years of photos and memorabilia and leave a legacy that truly cannot be measured but only applauded.
He looks forward to practicing his golf game, spending more time with his family, reading and drinking red wine. And no matter how many times he says he hopes we won’t notice he’s gone, we all know we will.
Great game, Coach.