A zest for life – Susie Bennett-Yeo

A zest for life – Susie Bennett-Yeo

By Susan Prior

It seemed appropriate, as the Special Olympics World Winter Games is currently taking place in Austria, to introduce you to Special Olympics volunteer Susie Bennett-Yeo.

When you meet Susie the thing that strikes you first is her infectious laugh and bubbling enthusiasm – for anything and everything. Susie is one of life’s great optimists, a consummate networker, and someone who is determined to squeeze every drop of enjoyment she can out of life.

Which is why I wanted to do a profile about her. Her zest and energy are inspirational; her generosity – both of spirit and with her time – is outstanding. 

Susie has worked with people with disabilities for more than 30 years, and, specifically, people with intellectual disabilities. These days she is a volunteer with the Special Olympics giving much of her time to help others achieve their personal best.

Special Olympics is an organisation founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, one of the famous Kennedy clan – sister to John F Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and Ted Kennedy – and more. Their sister Rosemary had an intellectual disability and Eunice wanted to create an organisation that would help dispel negative perceptions about this group of people.

In this Winter Olympics year, I thought it would be timely to raise awareness of the Special Olympics and debunk some of the confusion around this organisation. Special Olympics is not the Olympics, nor is it the Paralympics. The Olympics and the Paralympics are for the elite, the latter being for elite athletes with physical and sensory disabilities. Special Olympics – the only other organisation allowed to use the ‘Olympics’ name – is for athletes with an intellectual disability who compete in a range of divisions determined by age, gender and level of ability.

The organisation, according to its website, focuses on ‘weekly sports participation in local communities’. Like the Olympics, the organisation holds the Special Olympics World Summer Games and Winter Games two years apart. Outside of the Olympics, this, says Susie, is the largest sporting event in the world with more than 7000 athletes from between 168 and 170 countries.

This is what the website has to say about the current Winter games:

The Special Olympics World Winter Games [are] in Austria from 14-25 March 2017 where 3,000 athletes with an intellectual disability from 117 nations will compete across nine wintersports disciplines: Alpine skiing, figure skating, floor ball, floor hockey, Nordic skiing, snow shoeing, snowboarding, speed skating and stick shooting, with floor hockey and floor ball having the most participants.

Australia [is] represented by 12 athletes ... [competing] across two disciplines: Alpine skiing and snowboarding. They [are] supported by five volunteer officials and cheered on by a small group of families and supporters at the Games and many more at home via social media. This will be only the second-time that Australian athletes have competed in snowsports at a World Winter Games.

Susie was there right at the beginning of Special Olympics in Australia, when, as a school girl, she went to help out at a ‘come and try sports day’ at The Southport School on the Gold Coast. ‘Anything to get out of school!’ says Susie with a laugh.

The organisation took a little while to gain momentum after this, but, today, it is a flourishing organisation, which allows so many athletes the opportunity to shine and achieve their best. This year it celebrates its 40th anniversary of operation in Australia.

After leaving school, Susie completed an Associate Diploma in Recreation, when the course was still in its infancy. As part of this she did three practical placements with the Sporting Wheelies, an organisation for people with a physical disability or vision impairment. After graduating, she worked with this organisation, before travelling to Canada where she worked in a home with six young men with intellectual disabilities.

Susie says, ‘It was the most amazing year’. Although, she says, in a moment of self-doubt, Susie went to see her supervisor who told her that she just needed to lighten up and enjoy the experience. ‘She really instilled in me the idea that these guys just want to live lives like you and me,’ says Susie.

This was a turning point for her, when she realised that a better environment could be provided for these men with intellectual impairments who were in her care. She lived with them in their home, as if they were all a group of friends living together, and created rosters for cooking and doing the house work. The garage was set up as an art studio; and they planted a veggie patch out the back. Susie says she and her co-workers took the lads on outings, even when they were warned that it might be too hard to organise. She tells me about the Halloween Festival, a huge event in Canada, that they took the boys to that year.

‘Expectations are everything,’ says Susie. ‘These guys stepped up. Why wouldn’t they go to the Halloween Festival? We told them what the expectations around behaviour were. We took them downtown on the train, all dressed up in their costumes. They had the best time, because no one could see they had a disability. No one stared.

‘We pushed the boundaries back then. Today, the landscape has changed, thank heavens. Parents of children with disabilities expect much more for their children today. They won’t take second best for their children anymore.’

Susie says she made the mistake of returning to visit the home after she had left. Things had reverted to the pre-Susie predictable and routine ‘culture’, which was pretty hard for her to take.

She brought more than memories back from Toronto, because that is where she met her future husband, Rod.

Today, Susie mentors Ben Haack. Ben is an athlete from the Gold Coast and has Asperger’s Syndrome. He was on the Evaluation Committee for the World Games in Athens in 2015. Ben, says Susie, tells it like it is. He met and worked with Tim Shriver, Special Olympics founder Eunice’s son, who invited Ben to sit on the Special Olympics International Board, and on a range of other international committees and sports panels.’

Ben Haack (left) with Susie (front centre) at the Special Olympics Schladming yesterday.

Susie says that she assists Ben with his work in these roles. Ben can bounce his ideas and views off Susie, and she can help him socially. You can read more about Ben here. She also mentors another four athletes.

She is employed eight hours a week with Special Olympics Australia, although this is only a recent development, the rest of her time is all given voluntarily. The level of her commitment is breathtaking, because it involves a hectic, globe-trotting schedule. But, as she says, ‘I am one of those people who is lucky enough to work in the field of my passion. It is exciting. I have known all of these athletes since they were little. If I ever become one of those people who says “we’ve always done it this way” then show me the door!’

Susie always has a smile on her face. She was a Director of St Aidan’s Anglican Girls’ School Foundation for six years, only moving on in 2016. She also practises silversmithing – something she has pursued for more than 13 years – at the Goldsmith’s School in Bardon. She says it is cheaper than therapy!

‘My father always used to say, we teach our children how to work hard and how to study hard, but we don’t teach them how to relax. And that is a skill that you need to learn and practise.’

It is a great philosophy and one Susie herself espouses. Life balance: I think it is a skill we could all learn from this remarkable woman.

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