NAUGATUCK — She has completed 26 marathons. She has introduced and been introduced at public events by U.S. presidents. She has been an inspiration to thousands of people nationwide.
But the horrible names that she was called as a child still linger in the back of Loretta Claiborne‘s mind.
“There’s a saying that sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will never hurt you,” she said. “I can tell you, that’s not true. Names do hurt … for many years.”
Claiborne, one of the most accomplished and well-recognized Special Olympics athletes in the world, urged students at City Hill Middle School on Monday to think before they make fun of someone, and to stop bullying today.
More than 500 students in the school’s auditorium heard her message loud and clear.
Claiborne, who tells her inspirational story to schools across the country, was asked to speak at City Hill as part of the school’s effort to teach children to be leaders and to value themselves and others equally.
Claiborne was born intellectually challenged, and was unable to walk or talk until age 4.
Despite being told by doctors that she may never run 100 yards, she has completed 26 marathons, finishing in the top 100 female runners in two Boston Marathons.
Claiborne has competed in a variety of Special Olympics sports since 1970. She has represented the United States in six Special Olympics World Games, and has won six gold medals, three silvers and a bronze.
She also holds a fourth-degree black belt in karate.
Though she’s a decorated athlete who has received many accolades, Claiborne is perhaps most widely recognized for bringing awareness for Special Olympians and being an advocate for inclusion and acceptance for those with physical or mental disabilities, according to the website for Special Olympics 2014.
Her story about persevering from growing up poor in a single-parent household and being bullied as a child seems to have had a profound effect on many City Hill students.
“There were people next to me who kept saying, ‘Wow! She really touched my heart. I felt bad for ever making fun of anyone or hurting them,’” said Jimmy Valentin, a seventh-grader.
Katie Molinaro, a social worker, organized the program with teacher Colleen Jordan. Molinaro said if one person is impacted, it will have a ripple effect on the school community.
Claiborne said that is exactly why she chose to overcome her fear of public speaking and talk to students.
“If I can take one of these kids and get them to think differently about another child and how they treat that child — or how they think about themselves — then it will be worth it,” she said.