Special Olympics logo.
Shared Stories:

Defining Friendship

By Chad VanderPoel

The roles we all play in each other’s lives is different. Often those roles are defined. It may be mother and daughter, teacher and student, boyfriend and girlfriend, athlete and coach, or manager and employee. However, this relationship is something more. Their roles are the same, friends.

Tate McGraw and Jessica Nordhus share a relationship rooted in friendship. Jessica may be Tate’s paraprofessional in school or his coach on the court but that is not the limit to the roles they play for one another.

Tate McGraw and Jessica Nordhus smiling for camera.

Tate (13) is a 7th grader in Clark, South Dakota.  Jessica, a Clark native as well, has been his para since he was a 1st grader. Not long after Tate became in involved with Special Olympics. He started participating in basketball, soccer, athletics, and bowling. Jessica joined right along with him as his coach. The last seven years has brought the two closer together than what is typical for their partnership.

Tate McGraw and Jessica NordhusIn the beginning Jessica was nervous meeting him.  “It was a new job and a new environment. We were both nervous. It was a challenge at first, getting used to each other,” says Jessica. The beginning wasn’t easy but because they have been able to work together and interact those challenges have turned into what makes their relationship work so well.

Kim McGraw, Tate’s mom, has seen their relationship evolve from the beginning. Kim tells, “I wondered how this was going to go. Jessica had challenges of what to do with Tate at times. Now it doesn’t faze her. They are friends now.”

Tate McGraw and Jessica Nordhus smiling and posing for camera with Tate in a Leprechaun costume.When asked about her favorite part about Tate and Jessica, Kim hits on the fact that they are friends. It’s not a teacher and student relationship one sees in a normal classroom.  “They have more of a friendship and they take care of each other. It’s a mutual thing. He takes care of her as much as she takes care of him.”

With admiration Jessica tells, “The best thing about Tate is he is always going to make you laugh. He always knows when you’re down. He always knows how to make you feel better. Not just a bad day at work but a bad day in life. Always knows how to change the mood and make it a happy situation.”

Jessica has worked hard to help Tate improve and get better over the years. Part of what makes Jessica so successful with Tate is the dynamic they have. In the classroom it is structured and more strict but on the court and on the field it is more about having fun and filled with lots of joking and teasing. The light nature of the two works very well for them.

Tate playing basketball with friends.“The best part about their friendship is they joke around with each other all the time,” says Sara Hoogheem, Tate’s former Special Education Teacher. “It’s what makes him thrive. They have a good friendship and a great working relationship. Tate really respects Jessica and wants to do well for her and so she can get him to do just about anything.”

Shortly after being around Tate and Jessica, it doesn’t take long to see how well they bond.  Whether it’s Tate offering up an arm wrestling match or telling his favorite knock-knock jokes involving Jessica’s nickname, Nordy. They disk it back and forth to one another.

When asked a question about Jessica Tate quickly replies, “Nordy is mean.” Then he’ll answer with a quick “yes” if he likes to tease Jessica or when asked if Nordy is his friend outside school there is no hesitation with a “no” and a big grin and chuckle.

“My favorite thing about working with Tate through the years is I feel like I have developed and got a new best friend.”

Tate and friends joking and posing for camera.

This only paints a small picture of their friendship. It isn’t uncommon to see how often they are seen wearing matching shirts as they head outside school to buy cooking supplies at the grocery store or go to the bank and get suckers from the tellers. Jessica is very involved in Tate’s activities, often attending his goat show and 4-H events. She does her part to make sure he is involved outside the classroom, even inviting him over to help her with her garden and blanching tomatoes.

Jessica guiding Tate on basketball court.Aside from the joking, Tate will be sure to let others know about Jessica. Many people know Jessica by her nickname, Nordy, but if you ask Tate he will tell you, “My Nordy.” He is also quick to tell his parents when he comes home when she is gone from school. This goes the same for Jessica. Those who know her have heard her passion when it comes to Tate. She’s always talking about him and sharing their stories.

Some of those stories come from their experiences together with Special Olympics. In Jessica’s eyes, she thinks their involvement in Special Olympics has done the most for Tate’s development. Tate loves sports, specifically basketball.  Tate loves any kind of sport. You could get him to watch synchronized ballerina dancing. He would sit there all night,” says Jessica.

It’s Tate’s love for sports that has made being Tate’s coach easier for Jessica. She can push him and he listens. He’s interested in getting better and way more open minded, as opposed to things in school. This has attributed to a lot of growth for Tate. “Special Olympics has given Tate the ability to want to do more things. I’ve seen a lot of growth through coordination. He can make baskets now. He’s learned to dribble and become very good at ball handling.”

Tate and friends posing on basketball court.Tate will also tell how she has made him a better basketball player and is quick to admit he asks her for advice to get better. This is also evident in Jessica’s dedicated direction and ability to push Tate on the court as she strolls the sidelines trying to set him up for success.

It’s not just the physical aspect that has changed the game for Tate. It has helped him socially. It impresses Jessica the most to see his social growth. He gets to meet new friends. He loves the experiences in the hotels and at the dances. It’s not uncommon to see him taking pictures with other athletes and friends. “Tate is getting better and better in everything he does. He’s just going forward further and further. I foresee everything from here on out to be successful,” excitedly explains Jessica.

Tate McGraw and Jessica Nordhus smiling for camera.The growth doesn’t stop with Tate. Working with Tate has changed Jessica’s life in many ways as well. A couple years ago Tate was faced with having hip surgery. It was Tate’s courage that Jessica found inspiring. Jessica was more scared about it than he was. After a successful surgery, Jessica was right there to support him at the hospital for pumpkin pie. Once out of the hospital, Tate was cautious initially but once he figured out how to move again he was excited for rehab and ready to go. “I’m not sure if I had something like that happen to me I would be able to have that strength,” she proudly says.

Being involved with Tate the last several years is nothing short of friendship for Jessica. She will even tell you they are like family. It’s become more than the education or coaching or everything else but about the connection they share of being good friends. She feels like he is more of a blessing for her than she is for him. “Working with Tate has changed me in a lot more ways than I can list. I can’t imagine my life without him or not being involved in some of these experiences,” tells Jessica just short of choking up. “I feel like all the experiences I’ve had the opportunity to have with Special Olympics and working with Tate has helped me on a personal growth level to become a better person in all aspects of life.

Tate McGraw and Jessica Nordhus smiling for camera.Jessica is excited for the future and what is to come next. She has a vision of Tate living near her, perhaps helping some more with the garden and even working side-by-side at her new boutique in Clark, Farmer’s Daughter Boutique.

With fond appreciation for what her son has gained in Jessica, Kim smiles, “I can see them being friends for the rest of their lives.”

Defining what friendship looks like is what makes Tate and Jessica’s friendship so special. It’s not limited to the parts they are assigned in each other’s life but rather to their experiences, the joys they share together, and their appreciation for each other. It’s the bond they have developed.

Share this story:

Have a story to share?

Please submit it to Jill Kvanli at jkvanli@sosd.org.

Previously Shared Stories