As a founding member of Delaware’s Special Olympics in 1971, Barbara Spence continues to volunteer and serve on the board. Judges for the Governor’s Outstanding Volunteer Service Awards honored her with the 2022 Paul Wilkinson Lifetime Achievement Award. Spence is 90.
In the late 1960s, Eunice Kennedy Shriver called the Jaycees in Wilmington and asked if they would help her start a Special Olympics chapter in Delaware.
“When the Jaycees agreed, they then contacted the principals of special schools, those who worked with challenged children, and asked if they would send students to participate in their first planned event,” Barbara Spence recalls.
“My husband and I both worked with children who had special needs at Meadowood School,” she continues. “Our principal asked us to help chaperone students to this event. Not sure what Special Olympics was all about, he decided to take only three students. It was a track and field meet held at Wilmington High School, and our students had a great time.”
The next year, they took 10 students. The following year, 20.
Barbara and her husband, Winnie Spence, were then asked to be on a committee and eventually joined the board in 1976. Now fully engaged in the mission of the Special Olympics, the Spences were the first people inducted into the Special Olympics Hall of Fame in 1996. Today, a room inside the Special Olympics Delaware offices bears the name Spence Hall in their honor.
After her husband died in 2015, Spence continued to volunteer for Special Olympics Delaware and participate in the fundraising Polar Bear Plunge in Rehoboth. “I just don’t go into the water as far as I used to,” she admits.
Working with the athletes has always been her favorite thing, she says. “We have always been inspired by their hard work, determination and dedication. They share their friendship and love with you so freely. They develop friendships with their fellow athletes and are ready to support and cheer them on during their competition.”
The Spences’ longtime involvement with the Special Olympics also gave them the opportunity to travel. “This is now an international organization,” Spence explains, “and beginning in 1976, Winnie and I attended all the international events that were held here in the United States. We also went to Ireland, which held the first Games outside the U.S. in 2003.”
As a member of the Lions Club, Spence offers annual presentations to members about the Special Olympics. “We take an athlete with us and they tell their Special Olympics story—what sports they participate in, what is their favorite, and how Special Olympics has made a difference in their lives. The athletes do a great job and this is always everyone’s favorite part of the program,” Spence says. “The Lions adopted Special Olympics Delaware as a state project in 1976 and has been supportive with volunteers and donations ever since.”
Over the course of her volunteer work, Spence would often go above and beyond, such as organizing dinner, a show, a movie or shopping at the mall for five or so girls. “It gave them a chance to be a part of the community and to garner a bit more independence without their parents,” she explains.
“It’s been an awesome experience. The work was often hard and the hours were long, but I would not have changed one minute of it.”
Louise Doe, the director of Volunteers and Athlete Initiatives at Special Olympics Delaware, nominated Spence for the award. “Barbara Spence has been an active volunteer for 51 years. She is a role model to many people because of her commitment, dedication and contributions to Special Olympics Delaware and its mission,” Doe says.
“Today, Barbara’s children and now her grandchildren are serving in volunteer roles here at Special Olympics Delaware to continue the Spence legacy of volunteerism that she and her late husband started back in the 1970s,” adds Jon Buzby, the senior director of Unified Champion Schools. “She will tell you that she gets far more out of Special Olympics than she could ever give, and what she has given is immeasurable.”
“To volunteer with a program that started with one sport and 100 athletes has grown to 17 sports and 4,200 athletes,” Spence says. “Who would have thought in 1971 that athletes with intellectual disabilities could swim for 100 meters, run a 5K, win a gold medal in basketball in National Games, dead-lift 605 pounds in power lifting, play soccer, ski, bowl, play flag football, softball, and strategize in bocce to win against an athlete from Germany? Who would have thought? It’s been an awesome experience. The work was often hard and the hours were long, but I would not have changed one minute of it.”