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Specialolympics hero
• Jun 17, 2024

The VanWright family believes there is nothing better than being able to support each other in every way.

Two VanWright sisters work at TD Bank in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. Nina VanWright-Shy is a Project Specialist II, Credit Cards and Unsecured Lending Operations and Kia VanWright-Ford is Head of U.S. Anti-Money Laundering (AML) Training Communications & Employee Experience. They love to support their middle brother, Robbie VanWright, who has been a successful Special Olympics athlete for three decades.

TD Bank has been an ardent supporter of the Special Olympics since 2009 and has raised over $13 million for an organization that is helping people with intellectual disabilities find joy, acceptance and success through 46,000 sporting competitions around the world. The opportunity to include Robbie as part of TD's celebration was something the two sisters simply couldn't pass on. Robbie began visiting TD stores offices in 2016 as a part of the campaign efforts to celebrate, connect, and build friendships.

The goal of the visit is to build a relationship between teams and a local Special Olympics athletes. These connections help foster meaningful connections between TD staff, customers and local Special Olympic athletes. TD's ongoing relationship with the Special Olympics helps enforce its commitment to investing in communities where colleagues work and live.

Each year, TD shines a spotlight on several Special Olympics champions, sharing their remarkable stories and triumphs during their annual fundraising campaign. When Nina served as an Assistant Store Manager, she led the Special Olympics Campaign for the Burlington Region Retail stores. Nina then approached the Retail Market Manager and the Special Olympics director and said, “If you're ever looking for an additional champion, I know the perfect person, someone who is a long time Special Olympics athlete. He loves to socialize, has a wonderful personality, and it would make his day.”

As a champion, Robbie not only had the opportunity to talk about the sports he participates in, but he also got to autograph his own trading cards and pass them out to customers where he was cheered on by the community.

“Our family and friends love it, and the customers and employees have all become trading card holders and fans of Robbie,” Nina said.

The Burlington, New Jersey store asked him to come back every year and other stores caught wind and requested Robbie to be a champion for them, as well.

“It's something my sister and I take great pride in,” Nina said. “We’re always looking for ways in which we can highlight Robbie as well as his teammates, not just for their participation in the sports, but for their participation in the community. Discovering an employer that supports Special Olympics the way TD does has been a dream come true.”

A Special Olympics veteran athlete

Highlighting Robbie, and his involvement with Special Olympics, created buzz in the stores and greater fundraising for the program. Kia helped lead the Special Olympics campaign for the past four years where, she explained, they push out regular communications to the TD group, which includes thousands of employees, to entice and encourage people to donate to the fundraising platform.

“Before, folks would go into the store and make donations, and we would roll those monies up to local chapters,” said Kia. “But through this platform, people can make donations online," which is a faster and more efficient way to raise funds and get people involved.

Robbie, who has Down Syndrome, first became involved with Special Olympics when he was eight years old. Gymnastics was his first sport. He then moved on to floor hockey, basketball, unified softball and track and field. For the last 15 years, he’s specialized in the 50-meter run and softball throw winning him bronze, silver and gold medals.

“Robbie is now 43 years old and still very involved with Special Olympics,” said Vicky VanWright, Robbie’s mother. He loves to be with people, and we love that he keeps active.”

Robbie’s team is called The Lightning Squad, and he’s developed many close friendships. So have his parents who bonded with the other Special Olympics families.

“We not only get together for Special Olympics events, we also get together for family barbecues, swim parties, sleepovers, and vacations down the Jersey shore,” Vickie said. “The kids grew up together, went to school together, and share a lot of the same interests. There’s been a consistent community there.”

Since Nina and Kia’s involvement at TD, their connections have expanded to include an even larger network with members of the local community in Burlington County, New Jersey.

The Torch Run and opening festivities

The most recent Special Olympics event at TD, the Law Enforcement Torch Run celebration, took place on June 7th at TD University in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. More than 300 TD colleagues, executives and allies gathered alongside Special Olympics athletes for the first time since 2019 to commemorate the event. They experienced the magic as Special Olympic athletes and law enforcement officers pounded the pavement while carrying the torch.

"We believe that inclusion is for all people, not some people, and that sports training and competition provide a platform for Robbie and thousands of Special Olympians with intellectual disabilities to experience the thrill of victory just like everyone else," said John Pluhowski, Corporate and Public Affairs and Executive Co-Lead of the TD Disability Inclusion Network.

The VanWrights are appreciative of the community they’ve created through TD and Special Olympics.

“I know I can speak for my sister when I say it’s important for us to bring our full selves to work, including our family,” Nina said. “Something we have a tremendous appreciation for and something we always tell individuals about where we work.”

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