A Special Connection

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Tyler Bjork ('15) turned a volunteer opportunity into a rewarding career helping others

Tyler Bjork got out of the van. He didn’t have much choice. “I didn’t know that I wanted to get involved,” he said. “I was 14 and wanted to sit on my couch and play video games.”

Bjork’s mom encouraged both of her sons to spend some time helping others in the community. She was friends with one of the coaches for the Special Olympics program at Federal Way High School which incidentally happened to be the same school Bjork attended.

“She [mom] picked me up every day after school,” said Bjork. “One day we turned left out of the parking lot then made two more lefts and arrived at the back of the school where the soccer field is.” Bjork’s mom told him to get out. Little did he know that he was taking the firsts steps toward his future career.

Bjork participated in Special Olympics during all four years of high school. He played unified sports where people with and without intellectual disabilities are part of the same team. “I loved this experience,” said Bjork. “These athletes compete on a very high level and I enjoy the chance to learn with them and from them.”

Bjork came to UW Tacoma in 2011. His choice of colleges was partially influenced by his desire to stay connected to the Federal Way Special Olympics. “I’d developed friendships with people and wanted to stay close,” he said. Bjork coached soccer, basketball, bowling and softball while working towards a degree in urban studies.

While on campus Bjork got involved with different organizations. He served as ASUWT vice president and went on multiple service learning trips through what is now the Center for Service and Leadership. Bjork graduated in 2015. “I got a call about three weeks before graduation,” he said. Bjork had planned to spend the year after school interning with the City of Federal Way. “Joe Hampson at Special Olympics asked me if I wanted a job, so I change my plans.”

Bjork became the King County Region Manager for Special Olympics Washington. He stayed in the position for two years and now serves as Senior Manager for Coaches Education and Referees at Special Olympics Washington. “I work with our athlete leaders to help them talk about Special Olympics to people in the community,” said Bjork.

This past summer Bjork helped with Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle. “This was a wonderful event,” he said. “What people don’t realize is our athletes train year round.” Bjork competed on a unified soccer team during the last USA games in Nebraska. His team came in fourth. A teammate from that squad competed again this year on a traditional team and won gold. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him get emotional,” said Bjork. “His mom and sister were there and he just started crying. It really is that meaningful. At this point he’s a national champion in the highest level division for Special Olympics soccer.”

Bjork says he can’t imagine another career. The work is fulfilling. “Sports are a perfect avenue for real inclusion to happen,” he said. “Once you’re in this community, once you’re connected with individuals with intellectual disabilities and their families, you can’t leave. The relationships are just too important.”

Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / October 25, 2018
Photos by: 
Ryan Moriarty
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, Associate Director for Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu