IRMO, SC - “Focus on people’s abilities rather than their disabilities.” That was the message to fifth grade students at Harbison West Elementary School on March 2. Jon Stoklosa, a Special Olympics powerlifting champion, stopped by to share his story about persevering and never giving up.
Stoklosa has down syndrome and didn’t speak to anyone until he was 11, but just like the barbell and weights put before him throughout his life, he has overcome. The 35-year-old from Newark, Delaware bench presses, squats and deadlifts over 400-pounds and is a two-time national champion at the Special Olympic Games. In fact, Stoklosa has defeated the odds at an even bigger stage. He competed in the Arnold Classic against powerlifters in regular competition and won the title of “Lifter of the Day” where he received $500 and a plaque.
In his message to students, Stoklosa and his father Hank shared a story where he was once bullied at the gym during a training session. “He came home that night and went straight to his room,” Hank said to the students. “My wife and I knew immediately something was wrong. Jon never acted that way.” Stoklosa finally admitted to his parents what bothered him and eventually the gym was notified. The problem hasn’t happened since.
“The opportunity for our students to see someone like Jon who can achieve something so incredible despite having a disability is really empowering,” said Harbison West Elementary preschool teacher Beth Reilly. Reilly along with fifth grade teacher Brenna Lamprey run the school’s group Project AuSome, where fifth grade students team up with preschoolers who have special needs to learn and grow in the classroom.
Lamprey said Stoklosa’s story is the perfect way to tie in Project AuSome. “The one thing that we really work on teaching our students is not to let someone’s disability define them,” Lamprey said. “Like Jon and Hank shared with us, we want to focus on people’s abilities, not their disabilities. Jon may have had a hard time early on in his life, but he has prevailed and not let anything stop him. He’s Superman in our students’ eyes.”
After his presentation, it was time to have some fun. Jon picked out students from the audience to take turns arm-wrestling him. He even challenged Harbison West Elementary School principal Ed Davis. “Having Jon here today to speak to our students, it just helps put us on the path of where we want to go as a school,” Davis said. “We want to expand Project AuSome outside of Harbison West’s walls. This is a part of that. We are able to make those connections with the real world, and our students will see that when they leave us, they have made an impact not only with their school, but outside of it as well!”