July 2015 RichmondMom with a Mission: Ellen Costlow

Effort. Teamwork. Healthy competition. Good sportsmanship.
Aspects of life every parent wants their children to experience, develop and value.

For the athletes, for the volunteers, for those in the stands, no organization facilitates that parental desire more effectively than the Special Olympics.

This month, as Los Angeles is hosting the Special Olympic World Games, we selected our featuree with that tremendous life-changing group in mind.

Meet July’s RichmondMom with a Mission, Ellen Custlow.
Ellen Costlow 2 (1)

RichmondMom Cheryl
What is your title and how would you describe what is you do with Special Olympics of Virginia?

Special Olympics’ Ellen
I am the Manager of Volunteer Services at Special Olympics Virginia (SOVA). I am responsible for processing eligibility for our volunteers statewide as well as procuring volunteers for all of our state level events, including the approximately 2,000 volunteers for Summer Games which is hosted at University of Richmond every June. I also work closely with our Senior Director of Public Relations on our social media.

What was the catalyst that made you decide YOU personally needed to take action?

When I was in high school I had a family member who struggled with some mental health issues as well as a cousin with significant autism. After watching how these diagnoses affected my family, I decided that when I grew up I wanted to help people and make a difference in our world. I attended James Madison University and received a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW).

Please tell us a bit about how you got started…

With my BSW I entered the non-profit world and loved marrying my skills with my passion for social change. I spent four years working in the domestic and sexual violence intervention field as an advocate. Those positions were not easy, but each day I was able to empower people to grow and heal and it was amazing work. I had an interest in working with people with intellectual disabilities because of my cousin as well as my sister who was an exceptional education teacher, so when a position opened up at SOVA I jumped on it.

What is the goal of the Special Olympics program?

Special Olympics provides year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.

What do you feel has been accomplished so far?

Since Special Olympics was founded in 1968 they have helped to make huge strides in the world of intellectual disabilities, including the elimination of the word “retard” from medical and most general language, and the development of Unified Sports. Special Olympics is also one of the leading providers of healthcare resources to people with intellectual disabilities, a little known fact!

What makes you proudest personally about your affiliation with the group?

Special Olympics is one of the happiest places on earth. It is a complete honor to get to experience our events with our athletes who are filled with joy and pride in their abilities when they compete. I’ll confess that I’m rarely able to make it through a staff meeting or event without tearing up at least a couple of times because I feel so lucky to be a part of this organization. However, these are not the pieces that make me the most grateful for my position within SOVA. My greatest joy is knowing that working here will give me the tools I need to raise my three and a half year old son to be a kind and compassionate person who views people with disabilities no differently than he views those without. My hope is that through Special Olympics’ and my own work my son will be part of the first Unified generation.

What’s next on-deck?

Now that Summer Games is over we are preparing for our Fall Championships which are in Virginia Beach in November. I’ll be gathering over 700 volunteers for bocce, bowling, soccer, volleyball, golf, and roller skating events. If you’re interested in spending your weekend watching some of our state’s most amazing athletes please feel free to sign up here: http://vols.pt/6EJjRK.

How can others get involved?

In addition to the Fall Championships, opportunity the Richmond area is brimming with opportunities for volunteers. Our local programs are running practices year round and are always in need of coaches, council members, partners (people without intellectual disabilities who play on Unified teams), and event volunteers. If you’re interested in more information on how to get involved in your area, please send me an email at ecostlow@specialolympicsva.org.

How does your family feel about what you are doing?

From my husband, Joe: “I feel really happy that she has found a place where she is able to use her innate talents and abilities to help communities who need it, and to inspire and organize others to serve.  I feel really proud of the work that she does, because I see the effort she puts into it behind the scenes and the way it pays off for everyone involved.  And, of course, I feel lucky as I get to see her grow into a new role, become comfortable in asserting herself and driving change, and make herself known as a leader and go-to person.  I love watching her work.”

If you asked my son how he feels about it he would say something along the lines of “I like Mommy’s job because I get to get my face painted and get tattoos and do crafts”. He’s under the impression that every day at my job is Summer Games.
family2Is there a quote that inspires you?

The Special Olympics Oath never fails to move me “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” This is a sentiment that we would all do well to live by.

Absolutely! Ellen, thank you so much for the incredible work you do with Special Olympics of Virginia, and thank you for being a RichmondMom with a Mission!