Richard Cuevas, a Goodwill associate at the Petersburg retail location, cannot walk around the store without sounding like a champion. The three medals he won at the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in July make a distinct “clink, clink” sound as they bounce off his shirt with every step he takes.
“I haven’t taken them off since I won last week,” he said. “Everyone says they are proud of me.”
As a member of the Games’ Virginia delegation, Cuevas competed in bocce and won two gold and one bronze medal. “Everyone is a winner when they compete. I am a team player, and I like helping my teammates. Just like I help my co-workers at Goodwill,” said Cuevas.
Cuevas participates in Goodwill’s Supported Employment program, which offers a high level of training, assistance and specialized supervision to individuals with disabilities in an integrated work setting.
Cuevas credits some of his success in sports to the lessons he learned while working at Goodwill for the past five years. “I like how everyone works together. I ask my coworkers if they need help, just like me and my teammates work together to improve our game,” he said.
In his role at Goodwill, Cuevas is responsible for sorting and placing donated clothing and textiles onto racks before they can go to the sales floor for customers. “I worked very hard to get better at my job. That led to Ms. Shameka teaching me how to work with donations and in the housewares section,” he said.
Shameka Foster, Cuevas’ case manager, said Cuevas is one of her most skilled associates. “I’ve worked with Richard for four years,” said Foster. “He is the only supported employment associate at this store who is trained to work in all departments. That is a huge achievement. He knows how to sort and price donations, place them on the sales floor and does a great job keeping the clothing and housewares sections color coordinated,” she said.
Vincent Ellis White, a Goodwill program supervisor for vocational services, echoes Foster’s praises. “Richard’s level of training is the ideal result of our Group Supported Employment program,” said White. “We want our participants to be cross-trained so they can work in multiple areas. That leads to the ultimate goal of preparing associates for competitive employment, so they can take their skills outside Goodwill and be a success in any job they want,” said White.
Over the years, Foster and Cuevas were teammates in learning new skills at the Goodwill store. Foster said Cuevas’ journey shows the power of the supported employment program. “Associates with disabilities have the same potential for success as associates without barriers. Richard is a hard worker and I am proud to see him do well, not only at Goodwill, but also at the Special Olympics,” said Foster.
Cuevas started playing organized sports when he was 20 years old. “I didn’t play in high school because I wanted to focus on getting good grades. But, I always had an athletic ability,” he explained. He learned about the Special Olympics in 2006 through fellow church members at Oak Grove United Methodist Church in Dinwiddie. Those church members were Special Olympics coaches and sparked Cuevas’ interest.
“I started track and field, and that became my best sport,” he recalled. Cuevas participated in the 100-meter run, 200-meter run, long jump and high jump. He won a bronze medal during his first Special Olympics competition: the 100-meter run. “That pushed me to be a better athlete and set a goal to win gold,” said Cuevas. Since then, he has won more than 20 medals in several sports, including his most recent conquest: bocce.
Bocce is considered a mix of bowling and shuffleboard, involving a set of balls of different sizes. A player rolls a small ball onto a field with the goal of rolling bigger balls closest to it and winning points. “I tried bocce and I liked it. Then, I trained to get better at it,” Cuevas said.
He traveled to his first Special Olympics USA Games in 2014, winning first, second and fourth place in several bocce events. “Special Olympics is a great place to make friends and have fun,” he said. He made even more friends when he returned to the week-long Games in July 2018. “I traveled to Seattle and won three medals for Virginia. We are the type of athletes who don’t give up,” he said.
When Cuevas returned home, his friends and fellow Olympians threw him a welcome home party. “It was overwhelming. During the Games, I had a lot of support and everyone was calling and texting me to say, ‘you can do this,’” he said.
Cuevas hopes more people support Goodwill and the Special Olympics to advocate for individuals with disabilities. “I was diagnosed with a disability later in life. My barrier doesn’t make me any less of a person than someone without a barrier. We are human beings and we can live a good life,” he said.
Cuevas also said Goodwill is a place where everyone gets a chance to be a success. “Working at Goodwill teaches me about teamwork. I’m proud to work for an organization that helps people apply lessons from work to other parts of their life,” he said.