July 25, 2019 | Updated: July 25, 2019

"Give Yourself the Gift of Special Olympics" 

An Interview with Janet Holliday

We had the wonderful honor of interviewing Janet Holliday on all things Special Olympics Texas. Janet was an enormous piece in growing Special Olympics Texas in the early days and a close friend of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of Special Olympics. We discussed how it has transformed her life and career. 

Special Olympics Texas: When and how did you start working with Special Olympics Texas?

Janet Holliday: I had sort of two starts, the first one was in college. I was a freshman in college when I took a sociology class and my professor said that you can’t understand sociology until you get out into the community, so he volunteered my whole class to be “huggers” at the University of Texas in the very early days of the Special Olympic Games. So our whole class volunteered, not knowing anything about Special Olympics, and we were the ones at the finish line congratulating the athletes after their race. It was such a joyful experience.
My educational background is in psychology with a sequence in social work, and then I went on to get a master's in social work planning and administration. Freshman year, I wanted to be in non-profit, so fast forward… After graduation, I got hired by the MHMR, a big [mental health] agency in Houston, and I was given 4 million dollars with one year to spend it. It was all earmarked government money to seriously start community programs… I was on the job for about a week, and I got a call from Eunice Kennedy Shriver and she said “we want to strengthen Special Olympics in Texas” because it was in the infancy. She started [Special Olympics] in 1968 and this was kind of in the early ’70s (1975-1976). So I went there working through her, and we started Special Olympics Texas very intentionally in the Houston Area. From there, it just changed my life, and I became involved not only through my work and what was being done, but it changed my life in terms of my commitment to volunteerism. I worked with Special Olympics Texas through my business, but I also worked on it through my volunteer commitment. That’s how it started for me.

What has it looked like over the years after you started?

I went on from Houston and became chairman of the board at the state level, and then we moved to San Antonio, and I worked all over the state. In the early days, it was just the U.S., and the commitment was just to get all states involved. I remember when Hawaii joined, and then Alaska. Everything started at a grassroots level. It started without the parents, volunteers, and [support of] local organizations. So the early years were grappling with how to build the umbrella organization because the state was so successful, we had to build the national organization. We spent lots of time trying to figure out what the rules of the sports were because there were no guidelines, and it was just being developed. And then it evolved internationally. I always say Special Olympics is a universal language. I could go to any country or pick up the phone and call somebody and connect with them because even if you don’t speak the same language, you do. So that was huge. Just to see it go from grassroots to being the international/global organization.

The other thing I got to see grow over the years is the evolution of the caliber of sports, the level, the addition of more sports. Some of the powerful things for me was when we used to think we had to be the spokespeople for the athletes, and then there was a very well-known athlete named Loretta Claiborne, and we were at the meeting and she was like, “well why don’t you ask us to speak for ourselves?” And I was part of this group that went to Washington with athletes to be trained to be our global ambassadors to have seats at the board table. The whole ability to give athletes a voice and to be more inclusive has been powerful. I have also been a part of the way that Special Olympics has brought down so many stereotypes. Even by the way we used to talk about athletes from their disability, and now we talk about them through their abilities and changing the impossible to possible. So I’ve seen a lot of attitude changes and more open-mindedness.

When you started doing the [athlete] ambassadors program, did you realize how important that would be?

It was a profound moment that I could probably go back and put a date to, but I was in the role of chairmen of our board, and I would go attend many meetings in Washington. I was in a meeting where that was voiced and we were working on messaging and marketing, and it was this pivotal moment. Once it was stated of “why can’t we be the spokespeople”, it was like okay why can’t these kids have a swim meet way back in Chicago. Early on, global ambassadors were selected and recruited to do training for speeches, and that was the beginning. Did we realize that would change everything? Probably not to the degree. I don’t think we could’ve ever envisioned for that to permeate through the organization. At that point, it was more at the national games. We started by saying if Ms. Shriver was going to be introduced, an athlete was going to introduce her… It has certainly surpassed everything. 

Early on, every state made up their own rules, and we needed to lay an umbrella on top of all of the organic, grassroots type of programs. So we had to tell states that they were going to have to [add or subract] different sports… The challenge was how do we keep an organization that is so national and have everyone singing off the same page. So we went through many years of really building that and it is fun to see now that it is working… 

At one point, when we began the torch relays, we homemade our torches and couldn’t even pay for our medals. So, Coca Cola was a huge thing when we first started and still is. The reason the story is so powerful is the person I was supposed to call [for the sponsorship] is Rob Holliday, who is my husband now, and he [was] the VP of Public Relations and Marketing for Coke, and he was in Houston. I called him and so the joke is that he just cannot get out of the Special Olympics sponsorship. He is now working commercial real estate, but he is still paying for that sponsorship. [Laughter]. So that was all so fun in getting sponsorships from different organizations. It’s not just about the money, but the involvement in all the companies and the brands that support Special Olympics. The first significant thing that the states could be a part of was the Law Enforcement Torch Run. I was chairmen of the board in Houston and I got a call from Kansas where the Torch Run had started by the police chief. Their state director called me and said: “We are going to pilot the LETR in seven states, will Texas do it?” Well, we were still fragmented and it was hard to figure out how we were going to get the police to the games and everything. So we sent out a letter and we had the police chiefs, but the only people who could get there was the Bexar County Sheriffs department, and they did it on horses. We asked them if that was okay if we did it with horses since it was the only way we could have them participate and they replied with “only in Texas”. The only state that had horses. So I was on the founding board and worked for years on turning the torch run into an international program. 

What was your relationship with Eunice Kennedy like and how would you describe her?

I hope everybody has a kind of role model relationship like her in their life. She was just extraordinary. There are so many things about her that I could say. First of all, she was so hands-on. She cared about the athletes, what they thought, and about the families. There was no “no” in her words. She was so caring, passionate, and I just learned so much from her. 
It was their whole family. Sard Shriver was equally very involved. And now, Tim Shriver. That family has been through so much and how they dealt with so much adversity. The Kennedys have been unstoppable and they persevered in dark times and I think they showed that to our athletes that all things were possible. It was profound. If Eunice was at the games, yes she would thank the sponsors, but she wanted to be on the field talking to the families trying to figure out what mattered.

When did Eunice start mentoring you?

From day one, anyone in her circle would take in things. She would give the most powerful speeches. I think anytime, even if I wasn’t around her, I learned from her. The biggest thing is that she turned so many things around. Can’t for her was can. Impossible was possible. Disability was ability. So even the story of how it started because there was a woman in Chicago who wanted to do a swim meet with people with intellectual disabilities. She called Ms. Shriver when she was doing day camps in their backyard… She said, “everyone says that this can’t be done and that they can’t swim.” Well if you ever told her someone told you no, she didn’t accept that. She had a kind of presence where she mentored anybody and everybody around her. 

Why do you feel it’s important to help people with intellectual disabilities?

First of all, early on there were a bunch of us in a room in Washington. All of us were telling her that we were there to help the athletes. We were telling her we were going to do this and that for the athletes and probably patting ourselves on the backs for all the good things we were going to do because that’s what we were committed to. She stopped us and said, “you guys need to get over yourselves a bit,” in the nicest way. She probably didn’t use those words, but the point of it is instead of coming at it of what you are going to do for the athletes, she said that “it would probably be much more beneficial if you opened yourself up to see what the athletes are going to do for you. And you are going to be more helped and more taught…” She taught me that we are all equals in this deal and they will teach us just as much as we can teach them. She brought that up. So many good qualities were from my parents, but so much of who I am, how I got my success in business, as a parent, a community leader, all of it has been what I have learned from Special Olympics. I have gotten way more than what I have ever given to Special Olympics.

One of the things I have always thought about with Special Olympics is that quote where it says “Give me a fish, and I eat for a day but teach me to fish and I will fish for a lifetime.” If Special Olympics was just a program that helped athletes in sports, it would be a win, but for me, it has helped them in life. I like anything that is a solution, anything that helps give people independence. If you think about how [many athletes] have been able to live full lives and hold a job, that is why I love it. At the nature of it, it’s not just a volunteer program, but it is that they are learning life skills that can turn them into productive, contributing citizens. That is what I can see in the lasting results of the Special Olympics. 

When I was a little girl, my father was a businessman who was very involved in charities like the March of Dimes, and he would take us to see different events. Ironically, when John F. Kennedy passed the Mental Retardation Act, it started these community centers and my father was on the board on one in Beaumont, Texas where I grew up. We went to this big party where we met some kids and one of the girls asked if I could work with her and teach her swimming. She had intellectual disabilities and I worked with her throughout high school. It was funny how much I was exposed to the importance of volunteering and getting involved and that just carried through. 

What advice would you give someone who wants to make a difference in the world with people with intellectual disabilities?

I think it is to go at it from the right perspective and not doing it from a self-serving way. I think if someone is wanting to make a difference they have to be willing to make promises they will keep because you are playing with lives. A lot of people in life look like they do good things on paper, but the truth of it is that it is a servant's heart. Don’t volunteer if you are trying to get credit. Don’t volunteer so that you can tell everybody how great you are. Do it because you are coming at it with really true service and treating the people you are working with respect and dignity and building those relationships.

What led you to the CE group, the marketing/events company you currently own?

First of all, I would not have my business today if it had not been my career and my path with Special Olympics. When I went to college, I had no clue about marketing, event planning, or the world I’m in now. I went to work for a non-profit. When you work for a non-profit, you are the PR firm, the fundraising company, the communications team, the marketing team, the event planner, you are the whole bowl of wax. So what happened was without realizing it, I had to do so many parts of the business. In this journey, I got to realize what I loved doing. I got to plan meetings, I got to plan major events. So this lightbulb went on and confirmed that you have to be resourceful and committed to relationships. And then meeting my husband (the Coca Cola moment), I went into his world of public relations and marketing, I had this “aha!” moment and saw a path. For ten years I was in Houston working for MHMR and at the same time, I continued to volunteer and help with Special Olympics.

We then moved to San Antonio, and that was a pivot for me. As much as I loved every minute of what I did, I knew I wouldn’t pivot without non-profit work being apart of my work. By then I was really clear that I wanted to be in the event and marketing world. I saw a whole new path. We moved here and I hung my shingle and just said that I’m going to be in this world. I love that [CE group] does tons of non-profit work and I am still able to help companies. I’ve been able to continue to be a value-based company, support the causes, continue to make a difference, and be very purposeful. I am very thankful that the people that work for me are very engaged in that. I truly would not be here with my business if it wasn’t for Special Olympics because it taught me to be a leader.

What is the most rewarding and challenging part of your job?

Where do I begin? I think most business owners love what they do and then realize they have to run a business. You constantly have to be resilient and ebbing and flowing with whatever you are working with. You have to constantly be reinventing yourself because there are so many pressures of taking care of your team and clients. For me, it is always challenging to be a business owner and keep everything strong and relevant. The challenge is also what I love the most. I love knowing that we are going to be 30 years old as a company and that I am going to continue to throw new things against the wall and stay relevant. I think more than anything, there’s nothing better to work on community-based, cause-related projects where the bottom line is helping other people.

Anything else you would like to add?

The big message I would want everyone to hear is to do yourself a favor and get involved. If anybody is reading this article, whether you are a coach, parent, an athlete, business owner, just give yourself the gift of Special Olympics. The word joy is an important thing in my life. I think as you get older and you see all of the adversity that people go through and the stress that everyone has, I think that everyone is looking for a little more joy, hope, and optimism. To me, I continue to get fueled every time I am around a Special Olympics athlete; it’s hard to be down or negative. The athletes are so proud, so joyful, and they epitomize all of the attributes that the world needs right now. Do yourself a favor and get involved.