Charlie Austin, 15, of Brunswick, is being honored this month by USCellular for his volunteer work as an assistant basketball coach and team manager for the Special Olympics of Maine. Contributed / USCellular

A Brunswick teenager is being honored once again for his work with the Special Olympics of Maine as a basketball coach and manager.

Charlie Austin, 15, joined the Special Olympics as a volunteer when he was 12, after learning that a heart condition meant he’d never be able to participate in competitive sports again.

Charlie Austin, 15, right, works with Special Olympics of Maine athlete River Cummings of Gorham at the South Portland Community Center in February. Contributed / USCellular

Since his diagnosis, the freshman at Brunswick High School has found a renewed sense of purpose with Special Olympics.

“I just fell in love with that, and I’ve been doing it ever since,” Austin said.

His dedication to the organization and to the high school’s Unified basketball team, run through Special Olympics, earned him a youth community service award from USCellular’s annual The Future of Good Program. One of three winners from hundreds of nominations nationwide, Austin will receive $10,000 from the company to use to further his cause.

He isn’t sure just how he’ll use the money, but said he suspects part of it will go toward improving Internet access for Special Olympics athletes in Maine who can’t get online right now.

Austin’s enthusiasm for Special Olympics was impressive from the start, said Lisa Bird, director of public relations and youth initiatives at Special Olympics of Maine.

“He didn’t let bad news get in the way of what he wanted to do,” Bird said. “He simply changed direction.”

The athletes Austin works with look up to him and share his enthusiasm.

“He just immediately puts them at ease and makes them want to work with him, to play with him,” she said.

Even the pandemic hasn’t slowed Austin down.

When Special Olympics of Maine programming went virtual in March of 2020, he took $2,500, which he received from another community service award, and created what he calls The Warrior Program. The program provides funding to coaches to make and distribute motivational and instructional videos to the Special Olympics athletes, so they can exercise on their own until group activities start up again.

Austin has always been active, playing everything from basketball to soccer to hockey to baseball to golf. He was a three-season all-star athlete until he went in for a routine check-up in 2018.

His mother, Meg Austin, remembers the day well — she was in a hurry to get him to a baseball game afterward, and he was actually in his uniform when the doctor detected what he thought was a heart murmur. After a few tests, the doctor told her that her son would not be playing in that game, and the family learned a new word: cardiomyopathy.

“My heart is a little bit thick, so it has to work a little bit harder than it usually would,” Austin said.

His mother remembers reacting the same way any parent would upon hearing such news.

“The floor kind of fell away, and I knew, ‘OK, this is where our life changes,'” she said.

Her son was equally devastated, despite his parents’ best efforts to engage him in other extracurricular activities. Then, knowing basketball was Austin’s favorite sport, they suggested he try volunteering for a local basketball team run by Special Olympics of Maine. Austin said he went to one practice, and he was hooked.

He has worked as an assistant coach and manager for the team, and said he loved that the team members are far more focused on enjoying the game then they are about pure competition.

“There’s no real negativity,” he said. “Everyone’s just together, and a great community.”

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