LEXINGTON - When Justin Branham was a young boy, he told his mom, Tonya, she could have his Special Olympic gold medals. When she asked why, he told her they could melt down the medals and sell the gold to help pay the family’s medical bills. This is a window into the gold medal heart this young man has.
“At about age three Justin was diagnosed with atypical delayed ADHD and high functioning autism,” said Tonya. “I wanted Justin to participate in something he could be successful and excel in. All parents want to see their children shine and every person needs to feel wanted and needed. In Special Olympics, through his equestrian involvement, he feels like he belongs.”
When Justin first started with the Special Olympics he competed in basketball, gymnastics and track and field. He then decided to focus on the equestrian events and snowboarding. Due to a warm winter and lack of snow, this year’s snowboarding was cancelled. So, Branham says he has something to look forward to next year.
Justin’s equestrian training takes place at the Garwood Equestrian Center in Lexington. Linda Garwood (Davidson County Special Olympics Volunteer of the Year) has coached Justin the past ten years. Garwood’s son, Sam (owner of the Equestrian Center), and her granddaughter, Cassidy, have also coached Justin. Garwood says the Special Olympians prepare several times during July, August and September and then compete in Raleigh at the end of September at the State Event. The athletes must be able to compete intrail, hand classes, riding and western riding which involves in-and-out and cantering different leads. Garwood shared that Justin has to sit correctly, do everything on command, follow orders and not just wander around when participating in western riding competition.
“Justin is an excellent rider,” said Garwood. “The western rider class is one of the toughest there and he wins that class.”
Justin is now working at perfecting his skills in the cantering class. This is the highest level of competition. About 8 riders from Davidson County Special Olympics will compete in Raleigh. All of the winners at the State Competition will have their names placed in a hat and a drawing will determine who gets to compete in the World Games.
Justin’s name has never been drawn and he is hopeful that this will be the year he gets the opportunity to compete at the World Games. Garwood also explained some of the other responsibilities that Justin handles.
“Beyond his individual training, Justin helps us get ready for the horse show by helping to wash the horses, loading the equipment, hay, grooming equipment and other things that will be needed in Raleigh,” said Garwood. “It takes a huge commitment on Justin’s part.”
“Through the training program, Justin has become a huge influence over the entire team,” added Cassidy. “He sets a great example for the other team members. One of our athletes had a wheelchair that would not roll through the sand at the State Competition. Justin carried him on his back so he could be part of the opening ceremonies. Justin is a super influential member of our team. He looks after the other members to make sure their horses are ready, helps clean their stalls and helps them get dressed. If someone needs food, he will pick up their meal and bring it to them. He is not just training for himself. He also looks after the others.”
Although Justin enjoys Special Olympics competition, he communicates that it is more important to him that the other athletes have their good moment once or twice a year. He also added that many people take for granted the things they are able to do that Special Olympians cannot do.
“I like to help other people,” said Justin. “It makes me very happy when I help others. Once there was a girl from another team that didn’t get higher than 4th place. I won all four gold medals that year. I was happy to get them, but they don’t mean as much to me as they used to. I saw the girl was with her mom crying, and so I gave her my 1st place ribbon. It made her very happy. She had been competing for 2 to 3 years, and had never won a 1st place ribbon. It makes me feel good to help others to reach their goal of winning a 1st place ribbon.”
Justin’s dad, Robert, is very proud of his son.
“Justin likes to help other people,” said Robert. Although he has his problems in certain areas, he excels in other areas that other people don’t. He is a good boy, does a good job and is respectful and caring, for which I am proud.”
Justin’s work ethic and caring heart has impressed the Garwood family so much that he has become a hired hand at the farm.
“I love being around the farm,” said Justin. “I work Tuesdays and Saturdays cleaning stalls and working on fences. It helps me feel a part of something bigger than myself.”
Mary Ann Brown, director of the Davidson County Special Olympics, sees Justin as the most caring and wonderful young man you will ever meet.
He has one of the most caring hearts you will ever find in a young man,” said Brown. “He has an unbelievable giving spirit. When I hear his name, the word sportsmanship comes to mind.”
Justin’s mom (Tonya) credits the Special Olympics for having been a huge part of their family’s life. “Justin is the person he is today in large part due to his involvement in Davidson County Special Olympics,” said Tonya. “It doesn’t cost the athletes a dime and it has been a huge blessing for the Lord to put the Special Olympics in our lives. It has given Justin a way to be lifted up and take him higher. It has given Justin many opportunities he wouldn’t have been able to be a part of. Every little aspect of the Special Olympics is a positive influence from the praising of the athletes to the encouraging them to be the best they can be. Let me win, but if I don’t win, let me be brave in the attempt. That is what I love about Special Olympics. It is not necessarily about winning, and it taught my son a lot more: to help his fellow man and to reach out to someone that may need you. It has been a blessing to our family.”
During the interview, it was shared that Justin‘s dad (Robert) is battling stage-four kidney disease. He has also experienced some serious heart issues. The Branhams will appreciate lifting prayers that Robert will be able to receive a kidney. The family added that if the doctors determine his heart can handle a transplant operation, Justin is hopeful one of his kidneys will be a match for his dad.
Justin Branham has a gold medal heart.
Contact Mary Ann Brown at 336-242-2959 (Davidson County Parks & Recreation) if you would like to assist Davidson County Special Olympics by donating financial and/.or your time.