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Chris Murphy, Published February 17 2013

Physician driven by daughters’ disability volunteers at Special Olympics World Winter Games


Julie Blehm knew before her daughter Amy entered kindergarten that she was developmentally delayed. Knowing didn’t stop her heart from breaking when school testing showed the hypothesis of the 14-year physician was correct.

“You never want anything wrong with your child,” Blehm said. “You know they’re going to have struggles because of this. Life is harder and everything is harder for them. There’s clear discrimination, they’re teased and treated differently and I don’t know of any parent that wants that to happen to their child. It was heartbreaking.”

More than two decades later, 26-year-old Amy is working and living on her own just like anyone else. And 60-year-old Julie is back from an experience she most likely would never have done without her daughter. On Feb. 8, Julie came back from South Korea where she volunteered as a team physician for the 152 U.S. athletes at the 10th Special Olympics World Winter Games.

“It’s a great organization and I wanted to be part of it,” Julie said. “My husband died a little over a year ago, so I didn’t have any reason to not be gone two-and-a-half weeks, so I thought, ‘Well, I think this is a great organization, I’m happy to volunteer my time for it and I think this will be a great experience for me,’ which it was.”

Even though she was over 6,000 miles and an ocean away from Fargo, the biggest reason Julie was in South Korea was Amy.

“When she was 13 or 14 years old, we enrolled her and she’s been doing it ever since,” Blehm said. “It gives these people self-confidence and makes them feel part of the community. She has made some very close friends who struggle with the same issues. For parents, there’s support from other parents, who have the same questions. I think it’s a really good awareness showing that people with intellectual disabilities can be great functioning members of our community.”

What started off as being a spectator, watching Amy on the basketball, swimming, track and bowling teams, turned into joining the team with a bigger idea than winning.

Julie was part of a four-person medical staff and focused on the figure skaters and speed skaters.

“There were four different venues and they were 30 or 40 minutes apart, so we just assigned one person to each venue,” she said. “There are plenty of sprains for the skaters. Getting to know the athletes was a good experience. They are great people and they worked really hard because of their limitations. It was exhausting, but it was also fun.

Julie wasn’t the only area representative on Team USA. Thomas Mikkelson of Grand Forks competed in alpine skiing and Blaine Schulz of Jamestown, N.D., competed in snow shoe racing. Cindy Schopper of Valley City, N.D., was the coach of the snow shoe team, Kathleen Meagher of Grand Forks was the management team director and Kevin Arthaud of Bismarck participated in the law enforcement torch run.

It was Julie’s first time on team USA, but it doesn’t look like it will be her last.

“I would do it again,” Julie said. “The people, the rest of the volunteers, the coaches and the athletes were just great people.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Chris Murphy at (701) 241-5548