This Lope goes to great heights for Special Olympics

Sarah Shea (right), a freshman GCU student majoring in special education, is rappelling 27 stories down the CityScape building in downtown Phoenix in honor of her friends Hannah Hall (left). who has Down Syndrome, and Meghan Bailey, who has cerebral palsy.

By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau

Sarah Shea isn’t your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

But the Grand Canyon University student will be just as heroic Saturday when she dons a Spider-Man costume, gingerly steps over the edge of CityScape, one of the tallest buildings in downtown Phoenix, and nimbly scales down 27 stories, her spidey senses in tow, in support of Special Olympics Arizona – and in support of her friends Hannah Hall and Meghan Bailey.

She will be among more than 135 dauntless individuals rappelling off CityScape as part of Over the Edge to raise funds for Special Olympics Arizona. Each rappeller raises at least $1,000 through pledges to nab a rappelling spot. The $1,000 will support two Special Olympics competitors for a year. As of Wednesday, almost $110,000 had been pledged as part of the fundraiser, which is helmed by the Canada-based Over the Edge special events company. The company organizes signature rappelling events for nonprofits across North America.

Shea, who is from Castle Rock, Colo., met Hall and Bailey (right) in third grade. She has maintained her friendship with them over the past decade.

Shea first met Hall and Bailey in third grade.

“I was like the new girl in school, and they sat me next to two little girls who are special needs, one of whom is Hannah – she has Down Syndrome – and Meghan, who has cerebral palsy. It was the only open seat in the class, but it ended up being such a God thing,” said Shea, her blond hair in a headband and ponytail as she settled in with friends for the afternoon at Grand Canyon Beverage Co. on the second floor of the Student Union.

“I know that He placed me in that seat for a reason, because it just inspired me to work with kids with disabilities and we’ve been friends ever since.”

Shea’s friendships with Hall and Bailey inspired her to major in special education at GCU, where the Castle Rock, Colo., resident is a freshman. (Most days, Shea is your friendly neighborhood GCU student.)

It seems as if that serendipitous seat assignment in third grade prompted her to embark on a path that she continues to follow with a full heart. She would go on to work for Special Olympics Colorado.

“They pair you with an athlete and a partner, so Hannah being the athlete and me being the partner. We were on the board for Special Olympics, and so we traveled and did speeches and kind of like shared and taught people about Special Olympics and how to get involved. We kind of modeled that athlete-to-partner friendship.”

One of the signature events for Special Olympics Colorado was the Polar Plunge, in which daring supporters dive into ice-cold water during the winter to raise money for the organization.

“For that, you have to raise $75. Usually I ended up raising $400 every year with that. I always did the Polar Plunge with Hannah,” Shea said.

Not that her best friend always plunged into the event gung-ho.

Shea will be wearing a Spider-Man costume for her rappel, since Spidey is Hall's favorite superhero.

“She wouldn’t go all the way in, but she’d get her toes in and freak out,” Shea said with a smile.

The GCU student also has participated in the R Word Campaign to end the use of the r-word when it comes to those with intellectual disabilities.

“It’s just so sad because the word has become a derogatory word. I do a campaign every year called the R-Word Campaign, where it’s Spread the Word to End the Word. And so I have, like, a bracelet. It says ‘Choose Respect,’ because the new R word is respect.”

Shea is an advocate of using “people-first language,” which involves emphasizing the person and not the disability.

When she chose GCU for her higher-education studies – Shea wanted to attend a Christian school – she immediately looked at ways to become involved with the special needs community in Phoenix. So Shea applied and was accepted to be on the board for the Youth Activation Committee for Arizona. That's where she learned about the Over the Edge fundraiser.

She ended up raising a little more than $1,000 for the event and wanted to rappel in honor of Hannah and Meghan.

“I’m close to both Hannah and Meghan. Meghan is nonverbal and communicates through a talker, and so that’s super cool because I’ve been learning sign language from her, and I know how to use her talker. Hannah, on the other hand, is a little more high-functioning and can communicate.”

It was no accident that Shea decided to wear a Spider-Man costume for her rappel.

“Hannah’s favorite superhero is Spider-Man. She’s been Spider-Man since the third grade,” Shea said with a laugh. “Since I’ve met her, every year she’s dressed like Spider-Man. She’s also worn the same costume because she doesn’t grow as fast as I do, I guess. She’s worn the same costume since I’ve met her. It was kind of an incentive. I posted about it and was, like, 'If you can donate this month, if I raise $1,000, I will rappel in a Spider-Man costume. I’m wearing it for Hannah.’"

And Hall will be there to witness the whole thing. She is in town with her mom, Shelly.

"We wouldn't miss it for the world," Shelly said and added of Sarah's rappel, "I think it's super thrilling for Sarah to take the opportunity and for her to be taking it up a notch. They've competed together (in Special Olympics), so it's kind of pushing herself in that way. It keeps getting more exciting, their relationship. It eggs them on to do fun things together. ... And Hannah getting to come to college and have this experience and be included is wonderful."

Hall will be dressed in her Spider-Man costume and will wait for Shea to complete her rappel. Ask her what she thinks about her best friend scaling down a 27-story building, she said, "It's awesome."

Ironically, Shea is terrified of heights, though she said, “I know it’s really safe. I think the scary part will be taking that first step off.”

She added, “I’ve never done anything like this. The thing I always tell people is that people with special needs always challenge themselves every day of life, and so I can overcome this because I’m challenging just a small part of myself,” Shea said.

She also hopes Hall will be able to stay in the GCU dorms with her one night before she returns home.

The Over the Edge rappel raises funds for Special Olympics Arizona. Shea has been involved with Special Olympics in Colorado and Arizona.

“I want her to, like, see how I live and everything.”

Shea has remained friends with Hall and Bailey ever since meeting them, never wavering in her friendship. She said, "I just think people with special needs, especially Hannah, they have the best hearts and the least judgment and are the most accepting people. I say if everybody could have the heart of a person with special needs that we would live in the most incredible world."

Shea said her dream is to help those in the special needs community go to college, too. Going off to college and leaving Hall behind has been hard for her.

“You know how we have RAs (Resident Advisors)? I want to have like SAs – like special assistants – and get scholarship funding for that, and so people with special needs can come live on campus and have a special assistant so that they’re not living fully independently but they can still get that college experience and live away from home and go to their preferred classes.”

Shea does whatever a spider can to support her friends. She might be the biggest superhero of all.

You can reach senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at 602-639-7901 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @LanaSweetenShul.


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