The power of persistence: The incredible story of athlete Brandon Bucek

By Steve Gunn
LocalSportsJournal.com
GRAND HAVEN – They say persistence can take a person a long way in life.
Brandon Bucek is living proof of that, in a million different ways. When he wants something, he goes for it and never gives up, as the Local Sports Journal staff has definitely learned.
A few years back, Dave Hart, an LSJ writer who also works with Brandon at Orchard Market in Spring Lake, asked him if he would like to be the topic of a story for this magazine.

Brandon Bucek, right, with friends, after winning a medal in Special Olympics competition.


Hart was impressed with the way Brandon led such a busy, independent life, and competed in organized sports year-round, despite his developmental disability.
Brandon eagerly agreed to the story, but sports seasons came and went, the LSJ schedule always seemed to be full, and the story was never written.
But Brandon did not forget.
Nearly every day at work, Brandon would seek out Hart and politely but firmly ask how his story was coming along.
Hart would hear the same questions, over and over – “Hey man, what’s the update?” or a simple “Status report?”
When nothing happened for about three years, Brandon took matters a step further, leaving a message on LSJ’s voicemail, asking when we would write his story.
So this is Brandon’s amazing story, or at least a little part of it.
It’s about the incredible power of self-confidence and determination, and the true value of sports for young people, regardless of the level they play at.
Living and breathing it

Brandon, 29, of Grand Haven, was born with Down Syndrome. It occurs when a person is born with three rather than two number 21 chromosomes, according to his mother, who is a registered nurse.
A lot of people with similar disabilities end up shortchanged in life, because they lack the confidence to fully participate in what can seem like a very frightening world.
Sometimes their well-meaning families also hold them back, for fear they might fail, or get hurt in some activity.
But that was never the case for Brandon. He fell in love with sports at a very young age, was determined to play no matter what, and had parents who gave him the opportunity and support to pursue his activities.
“Brandon never played with cars or trucks when he was little – it was always about sports – there was always a ball of some sort,” said his mother, Michelle Cassens, who lives near Eastmanville.
“He was hitting off a tee when he was really little. I remember shagging a lot of balls in the basement. He started playing soccer when he was four. Then came tee-ball in the Tri-Cities Little League. At age 11 he started competing in Special Olympics sports, and since then it’s been a year-round thing.
“We always thought it was important for Brandon to be physically active, and we never held him back. If he wanted to try something, we would practice and practice and let him go. It’s the whole social part of sports, being part of a team, learning that you don’t let your team down. There are a lot of life lessons in sports.
“And Brandon has always tried really hard, no matter what he has done.”
That means Brandon tries hard a lot, because he has an annual sports schedule that would exhaust a lot of typical athletes.
He plays soccer in the early fall, floor hockey in the late fall, basketball in the winter, volleyball in the spring and softball in the summer. He takes a little bit of a breather around the holidays, but not much of one.
Most of his games are played locally or regionally, through Special Olympics Area 12, but he also competes in the state games on a regular basis, and a few of his teams have qualified for the national games, which has allowed him to travel to various spots around the nation.
“You can see my medals here,” Brandon said, proudly pointing to a nearby display of dozens of athletic medals and trophies.
“Of course!” Brandon said, when asked if he is typically among the best players on his teams.
Brandon says basketball and softball are his favorite sports, but he has a special passion for hoops, because he happens to own a basketball, and has a hoop and rim in the parking lot of his home.
“I’m always living and breathing it,” he said about basketball.
While he likes to win, Brandon has come to understand the true value of athletic competition. For him it’s mostly about the people he meets and the friends he makes – and he makes a lot of them.
“I just love the respect and the heart of the game,” he said. “I am always competitive. I like to win, but losing doesn’t really matter. It’s all about having fun and being with friends and having opportunities you never thought possible. Just knowing we have a reason to be here.”
Becoming Independant
The confidence that Brandon gained over years of competition has had a huge impact on his life in many other ways.
He has maintained his job at Orchard Market, performing a variety of duties, since 2010.

Bucek stands in front of his apparent door.


He decided he wanted to go to college after gaining his certificate of completion from Grand Haven High Schol, so he enrolled in Northhoek Academy in Grand Rapids, which serves special needs students.
Brandon has always loved music – particularly country music – but he finally got tired of just being a listener. So a little over a year ago he started taking ukelele lessons, and recently had his own recital, with just him and his instructor on stage.
He currently has his sights set on getting tested at Mary Free Bed Hospital in Grand Rapids, to determine if he might qualify for a driver’s license.
But his biggest step forward came about a year and a half ago, when he took the plunge and moved away from home, into his own apartment at Gracious Grounds Living Center in Grand Haven.
The move was difficult, for mother and son, but there was never any real question about doing it. He said the idea was more his mother’s – “about 40 percent me, 60 percent her” – but he understood the necessity of taking the next step in life.
“Brandon was nervous,” his mom said. “He asked me why I wanted him to do this. I told him that, since he was young, I had several important goals for him. Learn to read, to do at least simple math, and function socially with a lot of people. And I told him now that he had kept a job for some time, the next step in adulthood was to get your own place.”
Brandon lives in a special eight-unit building with seven other young tenants with developmental disabilities, plus a professional who is on hand to assist when needed.
His independent living experience has been a rousing success. He is friends with all of his neighbors, and has a best friend and a girlfriend who both live in the building. He functions much better than most young people when it comes to the daily necessities, like cooking for himself and doing his own housework.
He proudly displays a book with the title “Brandon’s Cleaning Guide,” and apparently follows the guidelines religiously.
“Of course,” he said, when asked if he was responsible for his apartment being so spotless during his magazine interview.
“I just cleaned his sink a little bit, but he is very neat,” his mother said.
Amazing things can happen

Bucek shows off some of his many medals displayed in his apartment.


Maybe the coolest thing about Brandon is his concern for other people, particularly those who face the same type of challenges he deals with every day.
He is very outgoing, makes friends very easily, and extends love very freely.
“Very special to my heart, more than you ever thought,” Brandon said, when asked how he feels about his friends. “I mostly love telling what we are, and who we are, to others.”
He serves on the board of an organization at Grand Valley State University called “Students for Special Olympics Advocates.”
“That group is very inspirational,” he said.
Brandon says he loves speaking in public whenever he gets the chance, and tries to convey a very important message.
“It’s mostly about telling people don’t call us the ‘r word’ – we should be using another r word – respect,” he said.
A few years ago, at a Special Olympics event, Brandon noticed a little boy, who was maybe eight or nine, struggling as he tried to compete for the first time.
He sat down with the boy, gave him a pat on the back, and encouraged him to keep pushing and improving.
“Don’t ever give up, you can do it, I believe in you, too,” Brandon remembers telling the kid.
For his mother, Brandon is a walking, breathing example of the need to embrace life as much as possible.
Her son has taught her how remarkably resilient people can be, when they have the necessary confidence and support to move ahead and tackle challenges.
“Brandon, I felt, needed an opportunity to swing the bat and go for it, and Special Olympics provided that,” she said. “We should never lower our expectations for people with developmental disabilities, because amazing things can happen.”

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