Our TOS Talks Speaker, Loretta Claiborne, touched hearts and minds when she came to Ohabei Shalom. Mia Klinger-Powell, one of the “ambassadors” from our congregation for this TOS Talk, has written a moving reflection about Ms. Claiborne and the inspiring message of inclusion that she brought to our community, which you can find below.
It’s a message that has special resonance as we retell our Passover story with these opening words from the Haggadah: “all who are hungry come and eat, all who are needy come and celebrate.” We mention not only those who are hungry but also those who are needy, recognizing that there are people among us who feel lonely and marginalized by our society, whom we also embrace. This message of radical welcoming and inclusion describes the world that Ms. Claiborne is working tirelessly to build and that we,at Ohabei Shalom, are committed to advancing.–Rabbi Sonia Saltzman
“She was chosen to have a life to serve others, the weakest of the weak, the castaways, the throwaways of society, at the time they would say the mentally retarded, and I am one of those people.”
In her tribute to Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Loretta Claiborne praises the fearless work of the founder of Special Olympics. Being fearless is something that Ms. Claiborne knows something about. At the kickoff event for the TOS Talks, Ms. Claiborne retold her story, “From Anger to Inspiration,” about growing up poor, black, with visual impairments, and physical and intellectual disabilities. Her anger resulted from years of mistreatment and abuse by an educational system and a community unable to see her worth. Through the determination of her mother who defied recommendations to have her institutionalized, Ms. Claiborne grew up in the public school, realizing her mother’s dream by graduating from high school.
At nearly 20 years old, Ms. Claiborne was introduced to Special Olympics; it was life-changing. There she found a place to live out her dream to run like her idol Wilma Rudolph. For the first time, she felt a sense of belonging and the chance to be celebrated for what she could do. During a competition, Ms. Claiborne met Eunice Kennedy Shriver who became her first friend. She learned sign language, taught herself enough Russian to greet visiting Special Olympics athletes, and earned a 4th degree black belt in karate.
Ms. Claiborne’s athletic skills and devotion to Special Olympics have taken her around the world and introduced her to the Obamas, the Kennedys, Warren Buffett, and Nelson Mandela, among many other celebrities. She has competed in twenty-six marathons, won more than 1,000 medals, and been honored with multiple awards for her accomplishments. Hers is a story of triumph over adversity- a narrative captured in a 2000 Disney movie titled, “The Loretta Claiborne Story.” Ms. Claiborne found success never imagined by a little girl with disabilities.
The made-for-TV movie ends there. Beyond that story of transformation, there is an amazing life. Having donated the medals and awards to the Crispus Attucks Center to support their programming, Ms. Claiborne focuses on the day-to-day. In addition to her speaking engagements and other responsibilities as Chief Inspirational Officer and a committee co-chair for the Special Olympics, Ms. Claiborne runs several times each week, attends practices for the sports she continues to compete in, visits with friends, and makes paracord bracelets to sell. Her earnings pay her bus fare from her home to the site where Flight 93 fell in the 9/11 attacks. There she volunteers and makes flags in memory of a friend, another intellectually impaired woman, who perished in the crash. Ms. Claiborne hopes she may someday become a guide at the site.
And then there is her mission. With skills that surpass most politicians and a travel schedule that rivals those of the current candidates, Ms. Claiborne is a fierce advocate for increasing much needed services and health care for people with intellectual impairments. Whether testifying before congress, giving her TED talk, or speaking from our podium, her frustration with ongoing discrimination is palpable; her support for any group experiencing exclusion just as passionate. At TOS Ms. Claiborne expressed a sense of awe and overwhelming joy standing in our sanctuary and meeting a woman rabbi for the first time. She asked our religious school students to stand up against bullying and our congregation to work toward greater inclusion in our community. When a young Special Olympics athlete asked her how she felt when she met President Obama, she responded, “As excited as I am now about meeting you!”
As we drove through Boston, I asked Ms. Claiborne, what she thought of all of her fame. She said she sometimes thought about how she had gotten further than most people thought she would. Her examples were not about whom she had met or her athletic achievements. She talked about graduating high school and being the first in her family to own a house. Ms. Claiborne also shared accounts of the difficulties she tackles each day. The challenges that Ms. Claiborne met as a child are on-going and were not eliminated by her athletic success, but they do not define her.
While the Disney story of a little girl’s triumph in the face of so many obstacles is moving, it is the way Ms. Claiborne lives that truly inspires and challenges us. How do we make the most out of our abilities? What is our capacity to push past our own limitations? What is our mission? How do we embrace our responsibilities to offer others respect, a sense of connection, and empathy?
“I put my faith in God that I can be fearless, on behalf of Eunice, on behalf of Special Olympics, on behalf of all people with intellectual disability, so when I look around, that one day, I won’t have to have a job to fight. I won’t have to be fearless that one day, I’ll be able to walk down the street, and look at this person, and think of them as a person, instead of a person with an intellectual disability, as a person to be a part of your community, of my community.”- Loretta Claiborne 2015