Charlie Austin, 14, of Brunswick, Maine, an eighth-grader at Brunswick Junior High School, helps young athletes with intellectual and physical disabilities on the basketball court through his volunteer work with a local chapter of Special Olympics. For most of his early years, Charlie was an all-star athlete whose life revolved around soccer, baseball and basketball. All that changed at age 12, when doctors diagnosed him with a rare genetic heart condition and told him he could never play competitive sports again. “I was devastated,” Charlie said. But after the initial shock, Charlie decided that even though he would never compete again, he could help others improve their athletic prowess. “I realized being an athlete is not wearing a championship hat, but wearing an athlete state of mind,” he said.
In late 2018, he decided to work with a Special Olympics Unified basketball team in several capacities. For this team of high school players, Charlie serves as assistant coach, statistician, score keeper and fundraiser. He also contributes food for team dinners and encourages his family, friends and acquaintances to attend games so the team has cheering fans in the stands. With his own money, Charlie created a team photo book that he gave to each player at the end of the season. In addition, Charlie recruited a friend to help him create gift bags containing warm hats, scarves and mittens for 500 winter athletes participating in the 2019 winter games at Sugarloaf Mountain. “Every athlete has different strengths and weaknesses,” he said. “I wanted to help Special Olympic athletes find their personal strengths. In doing so, I found my own.”