MISSOULA — Missoula's DJ Jackson was named the 2021 Special Olympics Montana Athlete of the Year. So much goes into this award from athletic achievements to off the field work in the community, and Jackson did just that with his work with the Ronald McDonald House.
Out of over 6,000 athletes, Jackson won the athlete of the year award last November, a first for Missoula in 16 years.
"It meant a lot. I worked hard. I did my best to keep going," Jackson said. "It was hard sometimes but I just pushed through and I gave back to the Ronald McDonald House. I gave them toys, I gave them food and a lot of my money and I thought that I could do my best and that's all I could do."
Those donations of food, money, toys and more stemmed from Jackson's own experiences at the Ronald McDonald House, and how he wanted to aid those whose situations he understood.
"What I was younger, I was in Seattle and Portland, I had major surgery on my airway," Jackson said. "As soon as the surgery was done, I nearly died but I pulled through eventually. I had to stay in the Ronald McDonald House because they wanted to keep an eye on me and they gave me toys, a room, food in my belly.
"Even though I wasn't home they made me feel like I was one of their own."
Most importantly, Jackson's contributions provided hope, and the 2016 graduate of Big Sky High School knows just how much that helps.
"I just saw a lot of kids going through some hard times," Jackson said. "I just knew what they were going through. I just knew they needed some cheering up."
The 25-year-old has overcome the odds every step of the way.
He was born with crooked feet and has a mitochondrial metabolic disorder, which has resulted in 27 surgeries over the years, most on his lower legs but some on his face and airways.
"I just thank all of the doctors that did their best for me over the years," Jackson said. "I wasn't even supposed to live past my third birthday because they said I wouldn't make it past my third birthday but I proved them wrong."
And through all of that, Special Olympics are a big part of Jackson's life, and he competes in bocce ball and golf alongside his partner and friend, Aaron Marx.
"I've been in Special Olympics since I was 8-years-old," Jackson said. "I would not be here without my mom, my family, my friends, just everybody supporting me means a lot to me."
And the award was the cherry on top for his goodwill.
"I felt like I did my best and I feel like it's a good accomplishment and I just thank the Lord for all of that, that I could do," Jackson said.