This is personal: I love Lisa McKay. When you have a child with special needs and you find someone who can bring out more from your child than you ever imagined possible, what is there to do but love that person?
Lisa is a whirl of unparalleled energy and enthusiasm. She manages to convince you that your nonverbal, barely walking child can play soccer and actually enjoy it. While that promise may take years to fulfill, Lisa will help you see that your child is making progress, however incremental.
Lisa McKay — head of North Kingstown Special Olympics and the adaptive phys. ed. teacher for East Greenwich — is, truly, a miracle worker.
I’m not the only one who thinks this.
“Lisa is probably the kindest, smartest, most committed person to individuals of all abilities and disabilities being able to be part of our community,” says Joanne Quinn, executive director of The Autism Project and parent of Patrick, a member of North Kingstown Special Olympics and a junior at East Greenwich High School.
“She just raises the bar higher than I as a parent of a child with a disability, higher than I ever thought he could ever do,” says Quinn. “But then she supports them, and gets them up there and makes them have fun and they buy into it and they grow. They become better people.”
Lisa was just named to the brand-new Rhode Island Special Olympics Hall of Fame — one of nine inaugural members, and the only coach. At the recent induction ceremony, Lisa had far and away the largest cheering section, from family and friends to her athletes and their families.
She comes from and still lives in North Kingstown. She’s been involved with Special Olympics in NK since the beginning, helping out while still in college. After the program started through NK Rec, Lisa took it over in year two. That was 33 years ago. She's been the group’s guiding light ever since.
“It fuels my fire,” says Lisa. She talks about the first time she learned there were people in the world with disabilities.
“In fifth grade, my friend Carleen said, ‘You can’t come to my house. I have a brother who’s severely handicapped.’ I was just trying to picture that,” she says, a family so overwhelmed and maybe ashamed that the parents wouldn’t even let friends over. “That sparked my curiosity back then.”
In high school, Lisa assumed she would be like her mother — a stay-at-home mom raising a bunch of kids. That changed. “One day, my phys. ed. teacher walked out of her office and it hit me like a ton of bricks, ‘That’s what I want to be.’” She went to URI, got involved in Special Olympics and never looked back.
Lisa taught P.E. in North Kingstown for eight years, then took time off to raise her three children, Steve, Jack and Maureen. By the time she was ready to return to teaching, a job teaching in the relatively new area of “adaptive physical education” was available in East Greenwich. APE helps students with special needs learn the skills they need to take part in regular gym activities. With her continuing experience with Special Olympics, APE was right up Lisa’s alley.
Initially, in 1998, she taught two days a week. Today, she teaches full time. In her off time, she coaches and guides the NK Special Olympics program. It’s no small undertaking. What started with only track and field has grown to encompass everything from bowling and basketball to swimming and cycling. Full disclosure: Lisa McKay does NOT coach everything (only most things). But she is the guiding force behind everything that happens on Team SONK.
“I follow them through out, seeing their development,” says Lisa. “I see them improve in the skills.”
She's become known in Special Olympics circles for her techniques to help people with autism learn to compete.
"That’s my focus now, to help Special Olympics become more autism friendly," she says. To that end, Lisa has added picture symbol schedules to the skills sessions for younger athletes so they can see what's next. And she's gotten SORI to make some changes in how it holds competitions so that athletes with sensory issues don't get side-railed.
For instance, the running races even for the youngest athletes used to be started with the firing of a gun, just as they are for typically developing athletes. But for athletes with sensory issues, that's just a deal-breaker. They get so overwhelmed by the shot that they either just stand there, cry, or run away. Today, SORI uses whistles, which can be blown at differing volume levels depending on the particular athletes in a heat.
Lisa says she’s heard plenty of times, “Oh, he’ll never be able to do that.”
“I know for a fact they will. That’s what I love. That part of it is just so rewarding,” Lisa says.
She speaks truth. My son James, 14, has Down syndrome and started out life with a myriad of health problems. He didn’t walk until he was 4 and even now doesn’t actually run. We started out with Special Olympics with trepidation. And those first couple of years of soccer and track were not exactly easy. But somehow we couldn’t give up — because Lisa wouldn’t give up. She believed in James and his ability to succeed.
Today, James absolutely loves soccer, asks for it even. He loves basketball, bowling, and swimming, and has even connected ball to bat in softball. Incredible stuff! It is because of Lisa McKay.
In the words of Michael Grant, a member of the NK team and EGHS Class of 2011, "Congratulations. Congratulations by the way Mrs. McKay."