Sometimes when you think you’re struggling with the challenges that come with everyday life, a ray of sunshine comes through and sets you right.
At Hamilton’s Sapphire Lutheran Homes, that ray of sunshine comes twice a week in the form of Chris Clare.
The 24-year-old Clare has a rare neurodevelopmental genetic disorder called Williams Syndrome that comes with mild learning or developmental challenges and a markedly outgoing personality.
He’s never let those challenges slow him down.
Last summer, Clare came to work at the Sapphire Lutheran Homes as part of a job vocational training program. It was the third time he entered the program, but the other two vocations weren’t a good fit.
Over the course of his training at Sapphire, he made an impression on both the residents and management at the home. When his training came to an end, Dominic Farrenkopf offered Clare a part-time job.
“This Thanksgiving, I’m really thankful,” Clare said. “I never thought I would get this job. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. That doesn’t come along very often.”
Clare’s mother, Cindy, said her son was “over the moon” when Farrenkopf, who serves as the Sapphire’s director of community life, asked him if he would like to join their team two days a week for two hours a day.
“It’s been so uplifting to watch him since then,” she said. “He would likely go to work every day, even without pay. He loves it so much. He is getting to know some of the residents there. There’s not a shy bone in his body.”
Cindy Clare credits Special Olympics and Victor School’s Martha Jaquith with opening up doors to her son that no one could ever have imagined.
Clare joined Special Olympics and went on to serve in national youth leadership roles that included providing inspirational speeches across the country, including in Washington, D.C., where he met Maria Shriver and Montana's U.S. senators, Steve Daines and Jon Tester. One his speeches at a national gathering before 2,000 people was featured on ESPN.
“I like to talk about how your dreams can come true,” Clare said. “That’s something I didn’t really know until I discovered who I really was through Special Olympics. I feel good about myself and those around me now. I like to tell people to never stop believing in yourself and to just always be positive.”
Clare rarely writes down his speeches.
“I don’t like to write them,” he said. “I want them to come from my heart.”
He said Special Olympics gave him an opportunity to realize that anything is possible.
“I liked that everyone cheered me on,” he said. “They were happy for me. I like knowing that I have a family, even though it was one that I didn’t even know I had.”
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That positive vibe hasn’t gone unnoticed over the years.
While he was still in school, his classmates selected him as their homecoming king.
“He was so social,” remembered Jaquith. “He was always willing to try. He would do anything that you asked of him. … Chris cared a lot about Special Olympics. He liked to get up and talk to share his message of inclusion. He wanted to grow up to be an inspirational speaker.”
Farrenkopf has seen the impact that Clare has had on others.
“I end feeling emotional when I see him and hear him talk,” Farrenkopf said.
The mission of Sapphire Lutheran Homes is to provide compassionate, innovative services and amenities to seniors that enable them to enhance and maintain their quality of life.
In Clare’s case, Farrenkopf said that mission went beyond the residents who call Sapphire home.
“To be able to extend that mission to this young man has been so fulfilling,” he said. “He was literally jumping up and down with joy when I offered him the position. … His excitement is contagious. He’s a perfect fit here.
“We did our best to teach him about the position and now he’s teaching us,” Farrenkopf said.
One of the home’s residents, Marita Moles, stopped by recently to say hello. After she shared a high five with Clare, she looked at him with a smile.
“We’re special, right?” Moles said. “Anytime you want to play ping-pong, just give me buzz."
When asked why Moles believes her new friend is special, she replied: "You know, he just finds joy in everything he does. He enjoys playing cards. He even loves my marble game.”
Clare’s mother smiled as she listened.
“He truly is just happy all the time,” she said. “He loves his job. He’s always been especially connected to the elderly. He is happiest when he knows he being uplifting to others. He really is like a little ray of sunshine.”
Clare's message for everyone this Thanksgiving: “I hope that God blesses everyone as much as I’ve been blessed.”