“Sport has the power to change the world,” Nelson Mandela once said. It’s one of Mitch Bonar’s favorite quotes – one that the 19 year-old Noblesville High School graduate lives by every day.
Born with cerebral palsy and mildly on the autism spectrum, Mitch always loved sports but had difficulty fitting in on the field. Bullied at school, he found refuge in video games and became withdrawn until a chance encounter with Special Olympics set him on a new path.
Mitch, his mom Kelly, and sister Tori, 16, share his inspiring story:
How did you first get involved with Special Olympics?
Kelly: When Mitch was in sixth grade, a family at church asked if we’d ever tried Special Olympics and we were like, “Oh no. He can run and play with these guys, he doesn’t need Special Olympics.” But we went to a practice, and truly and honestly, I introduced him, watched for ten minutes and had to go to the car and cry! He finally fit in.
Mitch: I remember it was fun. Some of those kids, we’ve stayed friends and we still play sports together. It’s more than just sports. It’s a giant family.
On top of your Special Olympics sports, you’ve helped spearhead Unified Track & Field at Noblesville High School, an inclusive sports partnership between Special Olympics Indiana and the IHSAA (Indiana High School Athletic Association). What’s that experience been like?
Mitch: Unified sports are made up of half students with disabilities and half students without. What we usually do in Noblesville is use our off-season athletes, so they have a chance to do a spring sport. It’s like opposites collide.
Kelly: I remember people saying, “This isn’t going to work. You’re going to have the football players sitting together, and you’re going to have the kids with special needs sitting together.” But it worked! There was a ton of respect, and that’s the goal – to get more compassionate human beings out of all of this.
You’ve found that sports can be a great unifier within a school and even between rivals, right?
Mitch: Yes, Carmel High School and Noblesville are really big rivals, but after our first season together of Unified, it’s not a hateful relationship anymore. It’s changed how the athletes interact. We’re more like brother and sister schools now.
Tori: I run Unified Track with Mitch, and I think it’s made everyone realize that you can be friends with whoever, because everyone has things in common. I feel like without Special Olympics, I wouldn’t be as close to Mitch as I am.
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When you graduated this spring, you were handpicked to deliver a surprise address to the student body. Were you nervous?
Mitch: When I looked up and saw everyone out there, I was nervous. But then I was like, “Nah, I got this.”
Kelly: We never in a million years would have dreamed that he would stand in front of his class of 750 students and give a speech. That’s after 18 years of speech therapy!
Mitch: And then (Special Olympics Chairman) Tim Shriver tweeted that it was the best graduation speech of the year, so that was really cool!
What’s next for you?
Mitch: I want to continue making a difference for the state of Indiana and for Noblesville, the community that I love. I’m just 19 years old, and I already feel like I’ve made an impact. It’s just the beginning of a long way!