The Special Olympics universe lost one of its brightest stars this week. Paul Berman, founder of the Special Olympics-Lions Clubs International Opening Eyes program and a chief architect of the overall health platform within the movement, passed away Sunday.
This loss reverberates throughout the extended Special Olympics family worldwide. Paul was loved and respected by so many of us for his warmth – he always wore a gregarious smile; his passionate dedication – there was nothing he wouldn’t do for his patients, especially the tens of thousands of Special Olympics athletes he held dear; and his knowledge – few people understand the health needs of people with intellectual disabilities as well as Paul did.
Paul was our teacher. Decades ago, before there was a program called Healthy Athletes, Paul was among the first to stress the urgency of the health challenges faces by our athletes and convince others that it was an issue that Special Olympics could and NEEDED to address. His energy was boundless as he spent hours talking about and planning an intervention that would later blossom to become the largest public health initiative for people with intellectual disabilities. This was Paul’s vision, and it was his endless efforts that made it a reality.
Paul was our trailblazer. He forged ahead with his vision in the early days despite the lack of budget and other resources to provide health services within Special Olympics. He spent his own money to bring volunteers together, developed a compassionate and effective method for vision screenings for people with intellectual disabilities and used his contacts with Lions Clubs to garner attention and resources to this issue so close to his heart. Despite the uncertain future for integrating health into Special Olympics, he pushed on in the knowledge that it was the right thing to do.
Paul was our friend. It was Paul’s love of people that was at the core of all he did. Whether it was to stop and have a bagel with a friend, offer advice to a partner, or teach young doctors about what they could do to be better at patient care, Paul’s affection came through. Paul relished the mentor role. Paul’s clear vision of what should be was the inspiration to his colleagues and friends to bring his vision into reality.
Paul’s contributions to the Special Olympics movement and people with intellectual disabilities cannot be measured. The lives he touched were never the same afterwards, and the gift of sight that he brought to so many athletes was so awe-inspiring that many have followed in his footsteps and worked to help our athletes have greater vision and better lives. This loss will be felt for years to come, but in his memory we will also carry on and continue the work for which he had such fervor.
The Special Olympics movement offers our most sincere and heartfelt condolences to Diane, his wife, and his children, grandchildren and other members of his family. Our community is here for them in their time of need, just as Paul was there for us so many times.
Paul was larger than life, and we will ensure that his life’s work will continue on.