They both graduated from Okeechobee High School, but R.J. was a couple years behind his friend Jason, because he spent some time at a school for the blind in St. Augustine. That school focused more on teaching life skills than on things such as math and English, so when he transferred back to the school system in Okeechobee, he had to start where he’d left off.
At birth, R.J. weighed only 1 pound, 5 ounces. He was the smallest baby ever born alive, at that time, which was 1979. His eyes had not formed yet; he has cerebral palsy; a quarter-size portion of his brain never developed; and he was given only a 2% chance of survival. No one thought he would make it. He spent eight months in the hospital, and they thought he might prove to be mentally challenged. “I proved them wrong,” said R.J. He was the first blind student to ever graduate from Okeechobee High School. “I don’t mean this to sound conceited,” he said, “but it makes me proud to have paved the way for other blind students.”
Due to a mistake made by a doctor when Jason was born, he is in a wheelchair. He went to every school, except two, in Okeechobee, he said. The family lived in the same place, but often he found himself transferred to a new school for one reason or another. “They would just say, ‘OK you’re going to South’ or ‘you’re going to North’,” he said.
Jason has been something of a loner since he graduated, spending most of his time alone in his apartment watching television, although he did work at a recycling center alongside some of the clients from the Rehab Center. Later, he worked for Walmart as a greeter for several years. His friend Bernard Marker, who met him when they both worked at the recycling center, invited him to join Special Olympics.
Marker is not one to just leave people to their own devices and does everything in his power to make life a little better for everyone he comes in contact with. He has been working with people with disabilities for almost 30 years. Marker has a daughter with autism and, as she got older, he looked into Special Olympics, hoping to get her involved, but he found out Special Olympics had not been active in Okeechobee for a long time.
In 2018, he was approached by the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office and asked if he would be willing to bring Special Olympics back to Okeechobee. The OCSO raises money every year for Special Olympics and wanted to keep that money in Okeechobee rather than send it out of town. Marker was more than happy to take on that challenge and, soon, Okeechobee athletes were competing again. They compete in bowling, basketball, track and field, swimming and more.
R.J. and Jason both enjoy bowling. Jason has won several competitions. He likes a challenge and spends a lot of time thinking about how he can improve his game. “My mom always told me to never stop learning, and I try to remember that and learn as much as I can,” he said. Jason does not think of it as competing with other athletes. He said it is more about competing with himself, trying to make improvements every time he plays.
RJ. has also won bowling competitions. He competes in the Assisted Ramp Bowling Division at Special Olympics and was named the Gold Medal State Recipient Champion. He not only enjoys participating in the sport itself, he said. He also enjoys meeting people from all walks of life.
In January of this year, Jason and R.J. both were recognized by the Okeechobee County Board of Commissioners for their accomplishments in the Boardwalk Bowl held in December 2019. R.J. competed in Assisted Ramp Bowling Division and was named the Gold Medal State Recipient Champion.
Jason competed in the Unassisted Ramp Bowling Division and was named the Gold Medal State Recipient Champion.
Since COVID-19 arrived and changed the world, Special Olympics has shut down all activities. They had hoped to start again in July but have pushed that back until they feel it is safe for the athletes to gather.
Jason said he is back to being a hermit. He stays home most of the time watching television, but he does not mind. “It’s what I was always used to,” he said. He still thinks about bowling and plans ways to improve his game. When things open back up, he will be ready.
R.J. spends a lot of his time studying. He enjoys learning new things. He has an A.A., a B.A., a master’s and a doctorate, and he is considering entering the monastery. Since the shutdown, he has been writing a book.
Although he will be happy to have Special Olympics back up and running, he is not wasting any time worrying about it. “I miss Special Olympics, but I miss my friends more. Competing with my friend Jason and being in the community is what I liked about Special Olympics,” he said. “Jason has been my friend since we were 4 years old. We have gone through a lot together. We didn’t see each other for a few years as our lives took different paths. My brother-in-law (Marker) and Special Olympics reunited us, and it was like we never missed a beat. Being able to go to state bowling games with Jason was one of the best moments we shared. Both of us winning Gold and State titles was the icing on the cake. I’m thankful to all the coaches and volunteers that made it possible.” When Special Olympics starts back up, he plans to be an athlete ambassador for the organization.