How this volunteer makes Jefferson City an incredible community.
I’m going to be honest with you. Until recently, I was completely ignorant about the depth of our community. Jefferson City was a wonderful place in which to grow up and go to school, but I didn’t understand what makes our city — the capital city — special. The capacity of giving here is, without question, truly remarkable. Without really thinking about it, we structure our social events, sporting events, professional lives, and more around giving back to those in need. And as we’ve shown, there is need here. Thankfully, we’re a community of philanthropic warriors, each and every one displaying a passion for what they do.
Sometimes volunteering is a team sport. Literally.
Gary Wilbers began working with Special Olympics of Missouri in 1994 with the State Outdoor Games. “That’s really what hooked me,” he says. “The athletes loved participating. They were so gracious and humble about what they did. I remember getting goosebumps from the excitement.”
For 23 years, Gary has involved his former and current (Ascend Business Strategies) businesses in Special Olympics. From the Polar Bear Plunge to Over the Ledge and more, he always has participating teams. They even dress up for the occasions — one year, they attended the Polar Bear Plunge as lollipops (a.k.a. “Suckers for SOMO”). “It became a passion, a company event,” he says. “I’ve also always involved my children. We always took them to the games. I felt that was an important part of volunteering.”
In 2008, Gary joined the SOMO board of directors. “They run like a business,” he says. “The thing that attracted me was that I could involve my family and my business. They created a culture within our business where my employees would constantly be planning for the next event.”
Gary saw the importance of Special Olympics at a fundraiser golf tournament 10 years ago. “Keith Lueckenhoff [a Special Olympics athlete] asked me to be his Unified Golf partner,” he says. “In March of 2014, [Keith’s] dad passed away. He told me, ‘Gary, I want to win a gold medal for my dad.’ We ended up playing that year at State. We didn’t start off very well. On the sixth hole, they called the game due to bad weather. [That afternoon] we won the gold medal. [Keith] stood up and said ‘Dad, this is for you.’ I’ll never forget that.”
Gary was also instrumental in the planning of the Training for Life campus for SOMO athletes. “We are going to have a campus that is nowhere else in the world, and it’s going to be right here in Jefferson City,” he says. “Athletes will come from throughout the state. Not only will they be able to train, but we’ll have leadership training and health screenings.”
His final words of wisdom: “We get more than we give. That’s any volunteer. If you give of yourself, you find out you’re pretty fortunate.”
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