Engineering staffer volunteers to support Special Olympics


Patricia Brainard keeps a special photograph on her desk in the College of Engineering, where she works as the department administrator for the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

The decades-old picture shows her smiling as she pushes her older brother, Denny, in a wheelchair in the annual Crim Festival of Races to support the Special Olympics.

The photo brings back fond memories for Brainard, who continues to volunteer and support a cause close to her heart.

“I do think the Special Olympics is a really good cause, and I don’t do that much, but it is an important thing, and it has made me a better person having participated and having grown up with Denny around me as an older brother,” Brainard said. “I feel like a more well-rounded person because I’ve had these different activities and stuff all my life.”

A photo of a woman pushing a man in a wheelchair
Patricia Brainard keeps on her desk a photo of her pushing her brother Denny’s wheelchair during the Crim Festival of Races, which supports the Special Olympics. (Photo courtesy of Patricia Brainard)

The Crim Festival of Races brings roughly 50,000 people to Flint every August. Entering its 46th year, the festival was started by Bobby Crim, a former speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives, to support the launch of the Special Olympics in 1976. The festival includes races for able-bodied athletes as well as a Teddy Bear Trot for children and the Lois Craig Invitational Special Olympics Race.

Brainard first attended the festival at a young age when her family started participating in the family walks with Denny, who had cerebral palsy. In those early years, they took part in the family walk and Brainard helped push Denny’s wheelchair. As a high school student, Brainard volunteered as a mile marker and helped raise money for the Special Olympics.

Throughout her decades working with the festival, Brainard’s volunteer work has included helping Special Olympians pin their race number bibs and talking with them to provide support between races.

Denny died in 1996, and Brainard continues to honor his memory each year at the Crim Festival. She and her husband travel to Flint each August to volunteer, walk in the five-mile race and cheer for those participating in the Lois Craig Invitational Special Olympics Race.

A photo of Special Olympics memorabilia
Patricia Brainard’s memorabilia from her six decades volunteering to support the Special Olympics and a photograph of her older brother, Denny. (Photo courtesy of Patricia Brainard)

The skills and knowledge Brainard developed volunteering with the Special Olympics have translated to her role within the College of Engineering.

“I have a lot of staff members with disabilities … and I’ve gained a little bit of a reputation here in Civil and Environmental Engineering as being a safe place for somebody to admit that they have a disability,” Brainard said.

“We have several people with various disabilities here, both mental and physical disabilities, so it’s made me more, like I said, accepting, but also flexible, adaptable. I know there’s ways to approach things from a different manner, to be able to still have a good outcome for somebody and still cheer them on.”

Through years of cheering on Special Olympians, Brainard said, she recognizes the importance of positive reinforcement in bringing together a team.

“The other thing I really have gained from this is a team aspect. Everybody is part of the team. It doesn’t matter whether you’re first, last or anywhere in between. You’re all part of the team, and everybody needs to be given space to be successful and cheered on to be successful,” Brainard said.

Brainard’s positivity inspired her team to bring this enthusiasm to support their colleagues at the CoE annual staff awards ceremony. The college presents excellence awards each year to honor staff members who demonstrate outstanding levels of commitment through their contributions to the school.

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“We were the first department just to bring signs and cheer people on and stand and hoot and holler and make it much more of a pep rally type event,” Brainard said.

“And now, all of the recipients have a team for them regardless of whether they’re from our department or not. And it’s kind of a ‘who can one up the other department?’ as far as cheering and yelling, and that’s really made a positive difference with our culture here. So that’s something else that Special Olympics has kind of taught me as well.”

Brainard said she looks forward to supporting the Special Olympics each year, and she will continue applying those experiences to help better herself as a leader at the university. 

“(Volunteering with the Special Olympics has) made me a better leader and a better manager over the years because I am much more accepting of other people’s differences, accepting of people who learn in a different manner or who have trouble learning,” Brainard said.

“Working and being around people who are not the same as me, it really makes me appreciate diversity a lot. I believe firmly that diverse perspectives, opinions, experiences are all what make us better decision makers. And if you don’t have those diverse things at the table, you’re missing out.”


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