Family, friends, and a national extended community of Special Olympics athletes, volunteers and supporters know Nora as the force behind great positive change wherever she goes. She has launched hugely successful fundraising and awareness campaigns, introduced a new level of respect for Special Olympics athletes within the organization and done it all while raising three boys.
What does it mean to you to ‘Live Boldly?’
I like to push the envelope. I like to challenge myself, and others, to do things we haven’t done before. All with the premise that it’s going to make people on the other end feel good about what they give. Everything that I’ve ever done, has really been about a not-for-profit… so, I’m all about empowering people, and asking them for help. You know, I’ll call people and they’ll be like, ‘OK, Nora – what is it? Is it Jane Doe, Special Olympics?,’ and I’ll say, ‘No, I just called to say hello!’ And meanwhile, I’m like, ok, now I have to call them next week and ask them what I really called them about. But, I love to do things that create a wow factor – that are unexpected, that are somehow going to make the people who really do so much for me, and whatever cause I’m working on at the time… I want them to feel great. So, I’m finding that that’s not done enough these days – people don’t take the time. They get people to do what they want them to do, and then they move on. I try to remind myself – you’re not done until you say thank you, and you do it in a unique way. So I’m always trying to come up with new creative ways to create wow factor at an event, to make people feel unique and special and great. Ultimately, they’re helping my cause, and if they feel good, and if they enjoy it, they’re going to help whatever cause I’m working on.
There are so many amazing causes, charities, things to give to nowadays. There was a time when Special Olympics could say, ‘We need your support’ and people would say, ‘Oh my gosh, of course.’ That’s not the case anymore. There are so many amazing things to give to that people are impacted by so why are they going to help me versus something else?
“What does it mean to live boldly? It means to always be creative. To always push myself and those that are working with me to go the extra step to make those people who are supporting the cause and the recipients, the athletes, feel empowered, special, valuable.”
That’s on the work side. To live boldly at home is to make it through the end of the day… [laughing] and to hear a quiet house and everybody’s in bed.
What is the greatest challenge you face?
Time. Not enough time to do everything I want to do. Not enough time to be more involved in the boys school, scouts – especially at a Catholic school that requires a lot. I’ve had to pull back from some things. I realized I’m not able to make a difference. Part of me giving is – I want to feel some level of satisfaction that I was able to make a difference, and to me, that’s my reward. I definitely don’t do it for accolades or public acknowledgment; in fact, I truly don’t enjoy that. I want to be able to walk away from something and go, ‘Ok, because I was involved, because I was able to put a committee together, because I was able to run an event, I made a big impact.’
If I spread myself too thin, I don’t feel as if I’m able to do that. So, I’ve had to pull back from a couple things because selfishly, I want to know that I’m able to make a difference. And if I’m on so many committees and activities, then to me it’s a social thing, and I’m not feeling like I’m having an impact. So much of what we do is about relationships. A lot of people never think there’s a reason to value relationships, but we try to teach our boys, ‘you just never know.’ You don’t know – you may need their assistance one day – you may need them a long time from now, or they may need you, or you just might have that time together. But valuing the relationships we have in so important.
What calls you to do work for others?
In high school, I used to go every Sunday morning to Mass with the priests at a psychiatric hospital and we’d come back to the rectory and go to breakfast with the priests. I really enjoyed it, I loved it. I just felt – it was at a point in my life where I thought… well, now I even see it in my life with my son, where going to church isn’t fun, it doesn’t have the meaning that you would hope it would have, and I was probably at that same point – at the same age. So going to mass with the residents at the psychiatric hospital made mass fun, it gave new meaning to it. And because I had an opportunity to go back to the rectory afterwards with the priests and share some of those funny stories – it gave it meaning to me.
I have to ask – what was it about spending time with psychiatric patients?
I don’t know, I must have related well to them I guess! Maybe because it was interactive – maybe it was because they had special needs and they needed me. If I just went to mass with our family, nobody needed me. It was all in my head and in my heart, and by going there, it was interactive. I remember going to people’s room and wheeling them out, sitting with them, singing with them, praying with them. Maybe it was a sign from an early age that I needed to be needed – I don’t know. I wanted to make a difference, and there I was.
How did you find yourself working at Special Olympics?
In college, I originally was studying PE, and then I was a Special Ed teacher. I went to school for physical education, but I decided it wasn’t right for me. I remember the girls putting on makeup and doing their hair in the bathroom before a tennis class – to go play tennis outside. I thought, ‘This isn’t for me,’ so I switched to Special Ed, where I should have been in the first place. Volunteering in high school for Special Olympics – even in high school I remember thinking, “I want to work for Mrs. Shriver (founder of Special Olympics) one day.” I admired Mrs. Shriver’s perseverance, her ability to keep going. It was her calling to give people with intellectual disabilities a chance to do something. She persevered, she stood by them. You know, people say… ‘Well, coming from the Kennedys and Shrivers gave her a lot of opportunity’… but really it was the perseverance and belief she had in helping people.
So I made that happen. I can’t imagine having a career I didn’t get so much satisfaction out of. Follow your heart, follow what brings you pleasure.
How did you land the dream job?
I had heard about this guy, Steve Miller, he was an Olympic track coach. He was the president of Special Olympics Pennsylvania. He came out to our area games – I was volunteering at the time running this track meet, and I said to him, ‘Wow, can I just come meet with you sometime in the state office and talk to you about how you got to where you are – you were an Olympic track and field coach, you were Director of Athletics at Kansas State University, and now you’re President of Special Olympics Pennsylvania… could I come talk to you?
So I drove down to see him, and asked him a bunch of questions, and a week later he called and said, “Would you like to come and work for us?” I wasn’t looking for one, but when he offered one, I felt like I had won the lottery.
What has been the most inspiring moment in your career?
Well, I worked on the World Games – I was the Deputy Director of Volunteers. We oversaw 40 thousand volunteers. Just surviving that was very inspirational. I was in my early 30’s at the time and it was a big job and accomplishment for me, along with everyone else on the team.
But it’s, it’s not one moment. The athletes are what inspires me. My job now is to oversee athlete leadership programs.
We have Special Olympics athletes who serve on the Board of Directors, and they haven’t always had an active role. So, I’m working with them now to prepare a report – they come up with the agenda, they meet with me, we go over it together. I oversee what we call Athlete Leadership Programs, which empowers athletes to take on new roles in the organization, such as Board Members, public speakers, serving on committees. So Brian and Ray [the athletes on the Board of Directors] now are running meetings, they have given two reports at Board meetings, and recently, one of the members of the Board said, ‘Now they have a purpose there – now they are giving their report, they may not understand everything else that is going on, and all the discussion, but the have to prepare something just like every other board member does and they have to give a report, and it’s helping other board members to understand the athlete perspective and what’s going on within athlete leadership programs, but more importantly, I think it’s empowering Brian and Ray to take on a new role and give back.
I can’t imagine having a career I didn’t get so much satisfaction out of. Follow your heart, follow what brings you pleasure. If I had to go to a job I hated every day I’d be miserable in life.
What is the most important thing in your life?
Family. I have a wonderful husband. I couldn’t have asked for a more dedicated, committed father to his sons. He is actively involved in their lives, he spends time with them, he is amazing, he just makes the time – he’s an assistant scout master – he is getting ready to take Zach and Sam and a group of other young men to Philmont in New Mexico, it’s the 100-mile ultimate adventure boy scout hike. He makes the time to put into it for the boys. Nobody’s perfect. I think when you’re looking for your soul mate, you’re looking for that person – you think it’s all going to be perfect. And you get married, and you have a family, and you’re faced with continual challenges. No matter what though, he’s got this great perspective and grounds me. He stands by me no matter what, no matter how neurotic I can be about things. I didn’t get it right the first time, and going through a divorce was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life because I’ve never felt so alone and had to tackle that alone. So, for whatever reason, I feel like I was given a second chance and somehow, to have had our paths cross, it’s amazing. And now 19 years!
We have three wonderful boys who never stop, Zach,16, Sam, 14, and Ben, 10. I think we did something right because whenever I meet people who know the boys, they say how respectful and just what good kids they are. So I think we did something right, and I’m proud of them.
Is raising three boys a challenge?
I don’t know any different… I think of my friends when we were with the kids at the beach and their girls were just sitting under the umbrella playing with their rolls, and I would run around the whole time after the boys, just running and running.
Mike and I have the same philosophy on parenting; we’ve apologized to the boys if we’ve made mistakes, we want to teach them to work hard and be good people, but they know we’re people too and we can make mistakes too. People always say that when boys get older they look out for their moms and get close to them. I hope that happens more as they get older. Mike takes them on scouting trips and camping and does guy stuff with them, and sometimes I do feel I miss out on that, but it is so wonderful to see them growing. They can all cook – just last night we had dinner and the three of them were cleaning up and I asked Mike, ‘did you ever think it would be like this? When you were chasing them around, and I was busy feeding one of them?’ He said, ‘No, no way.’ Zach and Sam are already taller than the refrigerator!
How has being a working mom influenced you?
Being a woman who works taught me a lot about balance, you know, I can be opinionated, often times I think my way is the best way – and it usually is – but I think you learn from working with other kinds of people. You learn to adjust your approach, and I think my boys have learned that from me.
I think they’ve also learned a woman has a role outside the house, that she can be there for her family and have a career too.
What do you wish you had known 20 years ago?
I wish I had focused more time on me – on exercise, hobbies. I got so much satisfaction out of the work I did that was everything. Now that I’ve turned 51, I think I don’t want to spend the next 20-30 years going to the doctor. I was talking to my mother-in-law Carol the other day for an hour about aches and pains and I realized after – I’m 51 and I’m talking about the pain in my hips!
Also, I’m always striving to do the next project or plan something and or make it better, and I have to remind myself, ‘Life’s great where it is – we should just stop and enjoy that.’
You are known for remembering birthdays, anniversaries and everything else! Why is that so important to you?
I get such pleasure from making other people feel good… from making somebody smile, improving their day, it gives me such personal satisfaction. It’s getting harder and harder as I get older, and that bothers me. I have forgotten things – I recently forgot the birthday of one of the boys who lives next door because I was away and had my phone off, and it really upset me.
It just makes me feel good to make others feel good. It is so satisfying for me.
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