Coca-Cola employees around the world are “sending their hearts to Austria” in support of the more than 3,000 athletes from 107 countries who will compete next month in the Special Olympics World Winter Games 2017.

The company, a founding partner of Special Olympics, recently hosted a special Valentine’s Day event at its global headquarters featuring 19-year-old Special Olympics Global Messenger and singer Bree Bogucki, who lent her voice to the Coca-Cola Unified Song for the 2015 Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles.

Bree Bogucki Special Olympics

Bree Bogucki sings to Coca-Cola employees during a special Valentine's Day event honoring Special Olympics.

Journey ‘Out of the Silence’

Bogucki, who has Autism, performed a few songs and shared her inspiring story and message of hope and optimism. She explained how she didn’t speak much during her first six years of life and struggled to communicate with her family. “My mother often cried, thinking we would never be able to have a real conversation,” she recalled.

As she got older, she became more verbal, but faced another form of silence “caused by exclusion, lack of understanding and not being accepted because I was different from the norm,” she said. “A lot of my peers were afraid to be my friend because I was different and they didn’t understand. So I constantly withdrew back into a world of silence.”

Bree Bogucki and Lani Demello, a special Olympics Georgia gymnast, smile for a picture during a special Valentine's Day event at the Coca-Cola global headquarters.
Bree Bogucki with Lani Demello, a Special Olympics Georgia gymnast.

Then, about 10 years ago, Bugucki joined Special Olympics and everything changed. She played sports for the first time in her life, competing in rhythmic gymnastics, artistic gymnastics, volleyball, basketball, softball and powerlifting.

“Becoming a Special Olympics athlete pushed me out of my comfort zone,” she said. “It was the first time I felt like I belonged somewhere.”

As a Special Olympics athlete, Bogucki gained a new sense of empowerment and was inspired to explore new hobbies – including singing. She won first place in a multi-state talent competition for individuals with disabilities, earning the chance to record a song in a professional studio, and later made her high school track and cross country teams. She has continued to run at Harper College in Illinois, where she just finished her first semester with all “A”s and was even named an All-American.

“This is an example of what can happen when people with disabilities are accepted, included and not discounted just because we have challenges,” she said. ‘We want to be like everyone else... we just want to be given a chance.”

As a Special Olympics Global Messenger since 2014, Bogucki has developed her leadership and communications skills, singing and delivering speeches at community and Special Olympics fundraising events around the country. 

“I am so thankful for these opportunities and to no longer have to live in silence,” she said. 

Following Bogucki’s performance and remarks, Coca-Cola employees had the opportunity to show their support for athletes traveling to Austria for the Special Olympics World Winter Games 2017 by personalizing hearts made out of Austrian Stone Pine wood. Coca-Cola offices around the world are sending hearts to athletes from their country’s athlete delegations. Each heart was made at HORIZONT, a workshop for people with disabilities, and features a knothole as a symbol of individuality.

The Coca-Cola Company is the founding partner and global sponsor of Special Olympics. Since 1968 – Special Olympics’ inception – the company has maintained a deep commitment to the organization and has supported programs through product and equipment donations, marketing support and efforts to showcase the unlimited potential of individuals with intellectual disabilities and the power of sport to bring people together both on and off the field of play.