Sue Palmer's ties to Special Olympics goes back to her childhood in the Bayside Queens neighborhood of New York City. Her best friend's brother was a special-needs child named Georgie.
Palmer noticed neighborhood kids picking on Georgie. Young Sue helped her friend, Eileen Day, with her brother.
A pattern was set. Sue Palmer is now 59, a Naples resident and still helping youngsters with special needs. She recently became the first Collier County resident inducted into the Florida Special Olympics Hall of Fame. She was honored for 23 year of volunteer work for the organization.
"I have never met anyone who puts so much tireless effort into what she does," said Carol Rafaloff, another Collier County Special Olympics volunteer. "She does it out of the goodness of her heart."
Much of Palmer's work is done out of sight, away from pools and playing fields and gyms. Since becoming involved with Collier County Special Olympics in 1989, she's performed countless duties. Fundraising. Organizing. Driving athletes to events. Getting hotel rooms and arranging for meals.
Janet McClellan's 30-year-old son Joshua, who has Down syndrome, has participated in numerous sports for 25 years. Joshua also is a global messenger for Special Olympics, giving brief talks to organizations.
For more than 20 years Janet McClellan has observed Palmer in all aspects of her volunteer work, from dealing with athletes during competition and working in the office.
"There's a lot of people who volunteer," McClellan said. "There's not a lot of people who treat the athletes with dignity and respect. She puts her all into it. Very caring. Spends a lot of time with athletes."
David McKenzie became the county coordinator for Collier Special Olympics in 2010, replacing Palmer, who retired from that position to become fundraising director. In his time in the position, the Army veteran has witnessed first hand Palmer's passion for the program and its athletes.
"It's unmatched," McKenzie said. "She's an inspiration to us all."
The path into the Florida Special Olympics Hall of Fame began shortly after Palmer and her husband, Jack, moved to Naples in 1989. She noticed an ad on a bulletin board at a volunteer center. Special Olympics needed volunteers.
She signed on and began helping. Why she does it is very simple to Palmer.
"It must be the reason God put me on this Earth," Palmer said.
The rewards she receives can't be measured in dollars or honors. She doesn't get paid for the countless hours of work. Honors or public recognition aren't what drive Sue Palmer, although a pat on the back or some other little reward are appreciated.
"I can't really explain it," Palmer said. "It just feels good."
Sometimes it's a quiet moment and a brief exchange in a fast-food restaurant that means something special. On a road trip some years back two women noticed Palmer with her special needs athletes. The strangers came up to Palmer and thanked her for what she was doing.
Even when the Palmers moved away from Naples they remained involved in Special Olympics.
The Palmers moved to the Orlando area in 1997 and she became the Seminole County Special Olympics coordinator. They returned to Naples in 2000 and Palmer took up were she left off.
Whether in Southwest Florida or Central Florida, Palmer has witnessed the impact of Special Olympics on athletes. She recalled an athlete some years back who wore a helmet on the track and could barely walk.
Five years later, Palmer recalled, the athlete didn't need a helmet for protection and was able to run on the track.
"I can see what Special Olympics has done for the athletes," Palmer said.
She has seen athletes who, when they first ventured into a pool, were afraid to put their faces in the water but developed to where they could swim 100 meters.
Other volunteers have seen growth as well, with individual athletes and the organization.
Rafaloff said she moved to Naples from Suffern, N.Y. 10 years ago and started to volunteer at that time. She helped coach golf and with fundraising. Rafaloff said Palmer's dynamic leadership helped grow the total from the organization's annual Patrick Solis Charity Golf Classic tournament from between $2,000 and $3,000 to perhaps $50,000 a year.
Not one dollar from that goes to reimburse Palmer for her time, according to Rafaloff.
"She doesn't get a penny for it," Rafaloff said. "She works it 24-7."
Palmer will turn 60 in December but has no intention of stopping as a volunteer. Who knows, maybe she'll devote another 23 years to Collier County Special Olympics.
"God willing," Palmer said.