Special Olympian Cindy Bentley visits schools regularly to share with students her message of determination and hope.
Last week she visited Readfield Elementary School in the morning and Sugar Bush Elementary School in the afternoon. She brought along with her the author of her biography, Bob Kann, who is also a children’s entertainer.
Readfield/Sugar Bush Elementary Principal Kristin Grable said that by having teachers read aloud Cindy’s biography, “Cindy Bentley: Spirit of a Champion”, students were excited to meet her in person. “As soon as Cindy walked in the door, one student said, ‘Miss Bentley it is an honor to meet you.'”
Bentley’s voice is slow and slightly slurred, a result of fetal alcohol syndrome and damage from other drugs her mother abused. Bentley also suffers from seizures, fits of forgetfulness and difficulty controlling motor skills in one of her hands. But since the day she was born, Cindy’s physical resilience has proven to be her saving grace.
During her visit, Cindy really focused on her present life and censored her hardships in growing up. Some of things that were not revealed to the students include the fact that doctors gave her 24 hours to live on the day she was born. Cocaine, alcohol and heroin raced through baby Cindy’s veins as she struggled against the addictions of her mother.
As a toddler, one of her many foster mothers lit her shirt on fire. By the time the woman’s husband entered the room, Bentley’s stomach, back and right arm were blistering from third-degree burns. It took nine skin-grafting surgeries to repair the damage.
When she finally left foster care, she entered the Southern Wisconsin Center for the Developmentally Disabled. This is where her life started to turn around. With the encouragement of a teacher at Southern Center, Cindy realized she had a deep passion for sports, and the discipline to train and compete. She began participating in Special Olympics, and gained confidence as she worked with teammates.
It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that Bentley started to blossom. She had moved to a new group home in Milwaukee and joined the Special Olympics North Suburban team. Soon she was playing soccer, snowshoeing, bowling, softball and swimming. Her marked improvement convinced friends and counselors that it was time for Bentley to live on her own. She started renting her own apartment in 1987 and has been independent ever since.
She went on to carry the US flag at the 1995 Special Olympics World Summer Games with speed skater and Olympic gold medalist Dan Jansen. At this year’s Summer Games in Raleigh, North Carolina, she encountered Lynn Swann, former wide receiver of the Pittsburgh Steelers and member of the NFL Hall of Fame. When she met Swann, Bentley had just won two awards in tennis: third place in doubles and fifth place in singles.
In addition to her role as a Special Olympics spokesperson, she is the first and only athlete to sit on the Wisconsin Special Olympics Board of Directors. Chosen as a Global Messenger for Special Olympics International in 2000, Cindy has had dinner at the White House with two different American presidents, traveled around the world, and given speeches in front of thousands of people.
“Special Olympics is my hero,” Bentley says. “Special Olympics gives me more than I give them.” She lists those who have been particularly inspiring: Eunice Shriver, founder of Special Olympics; Karin Hawley, Area Director of Special Olympics Wisconsin-Greater Milwaukee and her coaches.
Bentley, in turn, has become a hero to others. She is an amazing woman.