It’s a rainy Tuesday evening but the weather doesn’t dampen the attitude of Special Olympics athlete Matt Brown. “Tonight, I’m going to bowl at 900%,” he says as he carries his bowling bag into the alley at First Baptist Church in Merritt Island where he meets his league each Tuesday night. Before the lanes buzz to life, lit and ready for practice, Matt slips on his bowling shoes, fills out the score sheet and sets up his two favorite bowling balls. This is a routine that he’s come to develop over time; Matt started bowling 45 years ago when he was only 9 years old – and he’s still going strong. Like clockwork, he bowls twice a week; one day with his league and another with his Special Olympics team.
When Matt was born, the doctors didn’t think that he would live, let alone thrive. Growing up with an intellectual disability, Matt’s family knew that he had a lot to overcome. And like many moms, Sarah Brown was worried for her son when he started his first day of kindergarten. She knew that Matt was different and feared that the other kids would tease him, so she asked the teacher to call her if she saw any problems. “Once you’re a mother, you’re always a mother. Even if you are 100 years old, you still worry about them,” she says. After a few days without an update, Sarah called the school. When she finally spoke to Matt’s teacher, she learned that her son’s classmates had embraced him; her fears unfounded.
Often, perceived differences are not easy to overcome. Since its inception in the 1960’s, Special Olympics has used sports as a way to change attitudes and perceptions about people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “Through his successes there’s no question that Matt is breaking down stereotypes about people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” said Sherry Wheelock, CEO and President of Special Olympics Florida.
Through Special Olympics, Matt has competed in swimming, track & field, basketball and his favorite bowling. “He would bowl all day, if you let him,” says Sarah. When he wanted to improve his bowling scores, Matt took it upon himself to watch instructional DVDs to learn new moves and strategies. Even though he typically bowls a little under 200, Matt is proud to share that he has bowled 9 perfect games in his career. His confidence is contagious – he often shares his bowling knowledge with other athletes on his teams, coaching them on their approach and technique.
On his favorite bowling shirt it says ‘Mr. Professional’, a nod to his well-known dedication that earned him the nickname among his friends, athletes and co-workers. “I do a lot of things,” he says, adding that when he’s not bowling or working, that he plays the piano at church and takes classes. Proud of his accomplishments, Matt demonstrates true confidence in his abilities when he says, “you can almost learn anything if you just pick it up.”
Growing up, his dad instilled in him a strong work ethic, teaching his son that if he wanted something he would have to work for it. When he was 19 years old, Matt decided that he wanted to quit his paper route and work for Publix. His dad went with him to meet the manager and ask for a job, where they all agreed that Matt would start working at the store on a trial basis. That was in 1975. Thirty-nine years later, you can still find Matt at the Merritt Island Publix where he works part-time bagging groceries, stocking shelves, collecting carts and cleaning. Through his job, Matt has learned new skills and made friends. Today, it’s not unusual for him to be out running errands with his family, when to their surprise, he stops to chat with customers who he now calls friends.
Ask him what he likes the most about his job and there is no hesitation in his response, “I like the people at Publix. They help both customers and employees and are really good to work for. It’s a great store to shop at, too.” Matt doesn’t have plans to stop working any time soon; he only wants to retire from Publix after he celebrates his 50th anniversary at the store. At his 50th year Matt will join 15 other Publix employees who have celebrated this impressive milestone, including Publix founder George W. Jenkins.
Publix has a long history of supporting employees with developmental and intellectual disabilities. “We believe the inclusion of all individuals, nurturing their individual strengths is one of the keys to our success in the communities we serve,” says Brian West, Media and Community Relations Manager for Publix Super Markets. “Hiring those with disabilities enables us to keep our commitment in serving our communities – enabling those with disabilities to find meaningful work. We have found that our associates with disabilities are a loyal, committed and dependable part of our workforce.”
Each January, Publix stores partner with Proctor & Gamble to sell paper Torch Icons that directly benefit Special Olympics. Each Torch Icon includes coupons for products in the store; it’s one of the most successful fundraising campaigns for the organization. “Attitudes and perceptions are changed through experience. This allows our associates and customers to see our commitment, and that there are actually more similarities in all of us, than differences,” Brian shared.
Back at bowling practice with his league it’s only his second frame when Matt gets a strike, knocking down all ten pins. Triumphant, he turns and high-fives his friends on his way back to his score sheet. For four decades, Matt has lived his passion while altering perceptions about people with disabilities. And he’s still on a roll.