Charlotte volunteer superstar Bob Bowler is one of four national finalists for the “Humanitarian Award,” a national competition held annually by NASCAR (in honor of Mrs. Betty Jane Frances) and Nationwide to honor a fan who has dedicated his or her life to improving the lives of youth in their communities.
The concept is that NASCAR will contribute $100,000 to the winning fan’s charity of choice. The winner is chosen by online voting. I know Charlotteans don’t have the greatest voter turnout for mayor, but let’s change the stats for Humanitarian of the Year and help Bob win a generous purse for the Special Olympics.
Bowler has been a volunteer and coach for Special Olympics North Carolina athletes for the past 31 years, longer than many Agenda readers have been alive. He says he started volunteering because he wanted to be a good role model for his children.
“Bob has made a profound impact on the lives of nearly 10,000 children and adults with intellectual disabilities in Mecklenburg County and tens of thousands of family members,” said Mike Wiggins, whose son participates in Special Olympics.
Bob was a Special Olympics basketball and tennis coach for Mike’s son, Ryan Wiggins. “I have never met a more patient, kind, and giving soul than Bob Bowler…Ryan has succeeded socially, mainly due to the efforts of Bob Bowler.”
Thirteen-year-old Amber Nee of Charlotte is a Special Olympics Mecklenburg County tennis player under Coach Bob. She’s been playing tennis in Special Olympics for the past four years.
“Coach Bob has a big smile and he’s funny, said Amber Nee. “He’s helped me get really good at tennis.”
“Bob is an angel on earth,” said Monica Nee, Amber’s mother. “The athletes just gravitate to him. He is so full of love, understanding, patience and kindness. He does a great job teaching the athletes and has an endless supply of energy for them.”
Why does this matter for our community? For starters, no other organization is meeting the needs of this population.
(1) Special Olympics North Carolina is one of the largest Special Olympics programs in the world with nearly 40,000 registered athletes within the state.
(2) In North Carolina, year-round practices and over 400 competition opportunities are offered to participants in 19 Olympic-style sports. Special Olympics NC pays for sports equipment, uniforms, meals, travel expenses, facility rentals and overnight housing.
(3) Special Olympics is also the world’s largest public health organization for people with intellectual disabilities and Special Olympics NC offers many free health screenings (podiatry, vision, dentistry, overall health, audiology, physical therapy) for athletes.
(4) Typically about 2 percent of the population in a community has special needs, which in Mecklenburg County’s case translates to approximately 20,000 people with intellectual disabilities. Special Olympics Mecklenburg County has nearly 3,400 children and adults with intellectual disabilities registered to participate in the 19 different sports they offer.
SOAR and More
In addition to helping run programming at the Special Olympics World Games and coaching athletes to win gold medals at the World Games in past years, coaching Special Olympics tennis, basketball and golf, Bowler founded Camp SOAR (Special Olympics Athletic Retreat), a free week-long summer camp for people with intellectual disabilities from ages 10 to 100. SOAR campers benefit from five days of physical activity, exposure to new sports and the fun and fellowship of traditional day camp activities such as arts & crafts, dances, a talent show, and access to a computer lab.
This camp doesn’t just serve children with intellectual challenges, it changes the lives of volunteers who come back year after year starting in high school and continuing into college, said Al Tinson, a close friend who has known Bowler since 1999 through Special Olympics and who also supports Camp SOAR and other Special Olympic programs.
“As these young men and women eventually settle all over the country the lessons they learn from Bob through Camp SOAR in many cases have a profound impact on their lives…Volunteers dedicate their lives to working to improve the lives of individuals with special needs in such fields as teaching, occupational and physical therapy, and nursing. And they tell Bob it’s because of their experience at Camp SOAR. There is no way to accurately count the number who have been influenced that way.”
Wiggins says Bowler’s touch goes beyond the sports field. Bob also caters food to the monthly bingo games for the “special needs community.” As Mike Wiggins put it, “When Bob walks into the monthly bingo game at St. Gabe’s, he is smothered with hugs and handshakes from everyone in the room. Bob so deserves this award and a special place in heaven (much later) for his commitment and love for Special Olympics and the special-needs community that loves him “to the moon and back.”
‘A true champion’
Bob also partnered with Charlotte Motor Speedway and the Charlotte Hornets 20 years ago to establish annual opportunities for athletes to attend Pole Night at the track and a basketball skills clinic with professionals. The legend lives on today.
He delivers several hundred loads of gifts to needy children through his Operation Santa’s Helpers hands-on programs each Christmas.
In addition to his time and contributions, Bowler has raised more than $1 million dollars in cash and $1 million in in-kind donations for Special Olympics athletes.
How many of us can say we’ve raised $10 or $10,000 for anyone, much less $1 million?
“Bob is a true champion of Special Olympics athletes,” says Keith L. Fishburne, President/CEO Special Olympics North Carolina. “He puts the athletes first and works tirelessly to ensure they have a positive sports experience, believe in their abilities and are accepted and respected members of the Charlotte community. He is very deserving of this honor!”
How can you vote?
Now through December 3, fans have the power to decide the winner by voting daily for Bowler at www.NASCAR.com/Award (scroll down and click on Coach Bob). If Coach Bob wins, the NASCAR Foundation will give a $100,000 to Special Olympics North Carolina. Let’s help this Earth Angel continue his selfless service.