Today, Kristine Hughes proudly wears many labels. College graduate. Special Olympics Athlete. And now, one of the few accredited volleyball referees with an intellectual disability. For most of her life though, Kristine struggled to understand where she fit in.

Labels can be destructive. They can group people into stereotypes. Expose them to discrimination, exploitation and persecution. They can also help us define ourselves. I, for example, am an American Male. A family man. A television producer. Hispanic. European. A Jew. And so many other categories can be attached to my name. Some empowering. Some, targets for others to think less of me. But what if you had no labels? Or at least, didn’t understand where you fit in?

For much of her life, that was the story of Kristine Hughes. On the outside, she was the forgotten child. Given up for adoption at birth. Taken from her adoptive family while still a young girl. Tossed between foster homes throughout her formative years. On the inside, an even more confusing dilemma raged.

“Well I knew that I had a learning disability and I was slow. Especially in math, and english and science. I excelled in history and P.E. and but I did not know much more than that and I felt different. I knew something was different about me but I could not put my finger on it.”

Kristine didn’t have a family. She didn’t have a sense of where she came from. She didn’t know why she felt separate. She did know, she felt alone. “It was a tough time because it was like it seemed like no one wanted me. A child needs that loving mom and dad and when you don’t get it, it can be hard for them the rest of their life.”

After dropping out of college, she joined the navy and was assigned to the USS Yellowstone destroyer tender. She worked on pipes and generators to make them quieter and safer, and was also a fireman recruit on the ship.   However her health issues mounted and she was honorably discharged.

After leaving the military things got worse. Much worse. She struggled to make a living, eventually became homeless, and had devastating run-ins with the wrong crowd. Finally, at the age of 28, with her health problems mounting, she lobbied her home state of California for her adoption records to see if they could help.   The results were unexpected: it read that baby Kristine was “mildly mentally retarded.”

Kristine says she “was shocked, but not surprised. Like I said, I had felt different. so even though I was shocked it was a good shock but it finally answered the questions that I had and why did I feel different from everybody else.

Back in 1972, the “R-word” wasn’t considered as degrading as it is now. Today, it is most often an insult, but for Kristine, that label had a surprising positive effect. Once she understood she had an intellectual disability, it opened up a new world for her. And discovering her past, dramatically changed Kristine’s future. Suddenly, there were services and assistance she could apply for. And then came Special Olympics. “I was able to start competing in Special Olympics which opened up a whole new world of friends, possibilities.. I’ve competed in regular sports in high school and college but getting to compete with athletes that don’t care about whether they win or lose, they just have a fun time, they want to make friends, they’re always happy, just I can’t explain – say how great that makes me feel.”

Now, Kristine had a community in which she belonged and a support system that could encourage her. In 2008, she went back to school in Raleigh, North Carolina and eventually got a degree.

Today, Kristine proudly wears many labels. College graduate. Special Olympics Athlete. And now, one of the few accredited volleyball referees with an intellectual disability. On top of that, Special Olympics has named her a “Global Messenger” which requires her to speak to media on behalf of the Special Olympics.

“I come from where I couldn’t talk in front of anybody, shaking and being so scared to now I don’t care how many people are in front of me, you want me to do a speech, ok I’m up for it. I would have never imagined myself like that. I’m the one that’s usually going to be behind the cameras doing this stuff. but I’m in front of the cameras.. I’m just amazed at how far I’ve come.“

This summer, Kristine will travel to Los Angeles for the Special Olympics World Games to officiate the volleyball competitions.

“I’ve been telling people lately, it’s like a diamond, you find this diamond, you have to rough it up, clean it, and you keep cleaning it till it’s shiny. Well ,by them giving me a chance like today and other events that I’ve done, I’m a diamond. I mean I’ve shined so much, I can’t believe where I’ve gotten.”

See more of Kristine’s story on “Countdown to the Special Olympics World Games with Robin Roberts” airing July 25 at 8pm ET on ESPN.

Leave a Comment