This is a story about Ricky Brown, as beautiful a child as God ever made. Elsie Jones would tell you that. Ricky is a swimmer, sprinter, tennis player, ice skater and boxer. This story is about Ricky and how the Special Olympics changed his life. It is Elsie Jones' story, too, and it has to begin with her.
She never had children of her own. Miscarriages robbed her. "Four or five times, I almost had my baby," she said. "But God changed His mind." He had other work for her, Elsie Jones said. She gave her love to other women's babies. They didn't want them and they brought them to her and she raised them to a certain age. Then someone would come and take them away.
Elsie Jones is 70 years old. She is strong and graying and has no teeth. She lives in poverty and can not read or write. From the sidewalk outside her place in a Southwest housing project, you can see the dome of the Capitol. It is forever beautiful. The sidewalk next door to Elsie's place is stacked high with furniture. There'd been fire and they couldn't find the man who lived there. So they are taking away his furniture. Where grass belongs, broken glass sparkles in the dirt outside Elsie Jones' door. The dome of the Capitol is beautiful.
Elsie keeps her apartment neat and clean. She is proud of that. She has no use for people who don't try. She doesn't like people who drink and steal and give their children away to old women. She had a nephew who was drunk and didn't work. And he made a baby, Elsie Jones said, with a woman he didn't marry. The woman was an alcoholic and she didn't want the baby and she brought it to Elsie, saying she'd pay her $7 a week to take care of the baby boy.
Elsie knew she'd never see any money, but the baby was of her own blood, her sister's son's baby, and God wanted her to use her love.
So she took in the baby boy. He had passed from hand to hand, house to house, the mother promising to pay the baby's keepers but never paying. And when she didn't pay Elsie Jones the $7, Elsie couldn't make it. One day she held the baby boy in her arms and told him she couldn't keep him anymore. He was 4 years old and Elsie wasn't ready for what he said that day.
"Where I'm going now" he said.
She wept. The boy had no home. Where I'm going now?" God made him say it, Elsie said, and she couldn't send him away after that. The unwanted child of drunkards was home forever.
"You ain't goin' nowhere," Elsie told him. "We're stickin' together. The Lord done blessed you, boy."
This is a story about that boy, Ricky Brown. The story is on the sports pages because sports has helped Ricky Brown realize he is worth more than $7 a week that never was paid. As it happens, he is a very good athlete in his small world. He swims well and runs fast.
That is the least of him.
A better measure is this: he now dares to dream.For Ricky Brown, that is no small thing.
Psychologists' tests say Ricky is moderately mentally retarded. So he is in a special school and is an athlete in the special Olympics, which are games for the retarded. In 27 countries, a million Ricky Browns runand jump in the Special Olympics.
They are joy given flesh. These are children who have known the pain of taunts. They have been locked away, as if to see them is to catch whatever is wrong with them. In these Olympics, games such as this weekend's District meet at Gallaudet College, the retarded children run and laugh and are given medals and are hugged at the finish lines. The dark corners of life are lit by their smiles.
They come in wheelchairs, they come blind, they come stumbling and falling. Always they come smiling, for theirs is the happiness of children who have learned they are worth more than $7 a week that never was paid.
A million kids isn't many. Of them, Ricky Brown is one of the fortunates. Most mentally retarded people also are physically handicapped. They can not run well, nor jump high, nor swim easily. They live life in unconnected pieces. Ricky Brown has a wonderful body. He is 15, small now, well muscled and perfectly proportioned. A handsome child with the look of an Asian prince in his almond eyes, Ricky Brown at 20 will own the hearts of maidens for miles around. He is working on that even now.
"Oh, my goodness, do that phone ever ring!" Elsie Jones said. "It ring all night long. Girls!"
Someone asked Ricky how many girl friends he has and the boy tucked his chin and smiled. He held up all five fingers of one hand, then added a finger from the other.
That many, eh?
"And one more on the way," he said.
Two years ago, Ricky Brown was a loner. He was lost in a world moving too fast. He was in public school and he was 13 and he was reading at a pre-kindergarten level, able to comprehend only a few three-letter words. Kids younger than him, smaller than him, made fun of him. He tried to choke a boy in his neighborhood and the police called Elsie Jones to come get him at the precinct house.
Then they sent him to a special school, the Developmental Services Center, a program of the District's mental health administration. In the school with 80 other moderately retarded children from 3 to 18, Ricky in the past two years has advanced to nearly fourth-grade level in reading. His teachers are proud of him. Come next August, he likely will re-enter public school, this time in special education classes where he can reasonably expect to succeed. If only we count his girl friends on the fingers of both hands, he no longer is a loner.
"I hope he makes something of himself," said Elsie Jones. "I hope one day I'm proud of him. I hope to live to see it. I think I will. I pray to the Lord he makes something. I'm done with my life." The old woman loves him, and that's more than he had.
The Special Olympics is a 12-sport program open to anyone mentally retarted. It is not a once-a-year event, it is a year-round series of competitions that includes an annual international meet. Started in 1968 by the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, the Special Olympics operates almost entirely on the volunteer services of 200,000 people around the world.
Every morning at 7 o'clock, the first thing Ricky Brown does is straighten up his room. There on a closet door, where everyone can see, he has tacked up pretty certificates from school - "Improvement in Citizenship" . . . "Most Improved in Language Arts" - and there he has hung the dozens of ribbons and medals he's earned in the Special Olympics.
"The Olympics have made Ricky a better person," said Shirley Hodge, a District social worker who last year was the coach at the Developmental Services Center. "It shows he, Ricky Brown, can do something positive. Everything isn't negative."
And now Ricky has a dream. He can run fast and he can swim and he can read and he will work this summer at a swimming pool. He once was trapped and now he wants out.
Out of that neighborhood.
"You can get in trouble there," he said.
He wants to go back to public school. He wants to go to college. There are a lot of things he's dreaming about today. He'd like to have "one of those Big Brothers, like they advertise on TV, but Grandma says she can't find one." He wants to join the Navy. He wants to see Europe and the Bahamas and Hawaii.
In the District's Special Olympics this weekend, Ricky Brown earned three more medals for his closet door. A swimmer of interscholastic potential - "He's really The Man From Atlantis," said a friend, Kenneth Mack - Ricky won two gold medals in swimming. In track, he won a silver in the 50-yard dash.