NAUGATUCK — Salem Elementary School students received a special lesson on bullying from a special athlete last week.
Special Olympic athlete and motivational speaker Loretta Claiborne visited the school Oct. 9 to talk to students about her life and accomplishments, and to spread her anti-bullying message about bullying.
As a child, Claiborne told the students, she failed kindergarten, first and second grades.
“So, when there was someone who was so much older and taller than everyone else in class, do you think she got made fun of? You bet she did,” Claiborne said.
Claiborne recalled how her peers would make fun of her, calling her “stupid” and “retarded.”
Claiborne, who was born partially blind and with an intellectual disability, was unable to walk or talk until she was 4 years old. As she grew older, she began running — first just a few times around the track and then for longer and longer distances. She went on to run in 26 marathons, finishing the Boston Marathon in 1982 in 3 hours and 3 minutes and medal in a variety of events at the Special Olympics.
When one of the students at Salem asked Claiborne how many medals she had won at the Special Olympics, she replied, “I never count my medals, but I’ve counted every opportunity I’ve had to make a difference. Spreading the message to students is better than winning medals.”
Claiborne told the students the worst weapon on their bodies is their mouths because of how much damage it can do to other people. However, if they used it wisely, their mouths can be a weapon for good, Claiborne said.
“Your mouth makes all the difference,” Claiborne said.
Claiborne visited both Salem and Naugatuck High School last week as part of the high school DECA group’s “Spread the Word to Stop the Word” campaign that is trying to stop the use of the word retarded. The program started a few weeks ago and hosting Claiborne was the beginning of the campaign, Thorne said.
“We’re trying to reduce the effect of that word as a derogatory term,” DECA member Vincent Thorne said.
Claiborne said the she began speaking to schools about her accomplishments in the early 1980s with The Arc, an organization that helps people with mental disabilities.
Since then, she’s spoken to the United States Senate and the Joint Session of the United States Congress, has been invited to the White House by four presidents, appeared on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” on three occasions, written a book and traveled around the world spreading her message.
Though she has traveled so much, Claiborne said, that visiting schools is still one of her favorite activities. Before leaving Salem she told the students that becoming a great athlete takes more than hard work.
“You are a braver athlete if you take the time to be nice to someone else,” Claiborne said.