Heartland/Area 6 Team Puts ‘Unified’ in Unified Relay Across America

On Tuesday, June 9, a Unified group of 14 Central Illinois residents under the team name of Heartland/Area 6 will head to Southern Illinois to run a half-mile in the Unified Relay Across America.

The team, the first Illinois team to sign up to take part in the cross-country relay, intends to put the “Unified” in Unified Relay.  Special Olympics Unified sports involve equal numbers of people with intellectual disabilities and those without playing together on the same team. The Heartland/Area 6 team is represented by all key aspects of Special Olympics – 4 Special Olympics athletes, 4 law enforcement officers, 4 Special Olympics staff/board members, 1 volunteer and 1 member of the local media.

Philip Drinan, left, with his running partner Mike Bertelsen
Philip Drinan, left, with his running partner Mike Bertelsen

Kathy Schneidwind, a member of the SOILL Board of Directors for the past four years, immediately said yes when team captain/Area 6 Director Jill Bertelsen called. “This is really a good blend,” she said. “It’s cool that we can have all areas of the organization represented. That’s fun!”

Philip Drinan, 32, a Special Olympics athlete since he was 10, is excited to be running in the Unified Relay. While he’s never before run with officers in the local Torch Run, he has helped raise money with officers at the local Dunkin’ Donuts Cop on the Rooftop event.

Philip is looking forward to getting to know his fellow Heartland/Area 6 Unified Relay team members. “I like to meet new people. I like to meet people from other agencies,” he said. His father, Ron, said Philip has raised the most money on the team so far. “He’s blessed with a large extended family and good relatives” who are willing to support his Unified Relay experience.

Bloomington police officer Nik Jones and athlete Emilee Walker
Bloomington police officer Nik Jones and athlete Emilee Walker

Nik Jones, an officer with the Bloomington Police Department, is looking forward to working with Philip and the 3 others Special Olympics athletes. “Being able to do this relay Unified is the best part for me. Any time I do a (Law Enforcement Torch Run) event, I try to get Special Olympics athletes involved. Interacting with the athletes is my favorite part” about being involved with Special Olympics and the Torch Run. Plus, Nik has the added benefit of family – his sister, Jessika Jones, an Illinois State University police officer, is also running in the relay.

While Nik has never run in the actual Torch Run and he freely admits he doesn’t like to run, he says“I’m going to run the half-mile because of the athletes. I’m doing it for the athletes.”

Philip is no stranger to running or Unified-type programs. He runs around the community about 3 times a week and has progressed from running short races in Special Olympics athletics events to competing in longer distances of 1,500 and 3,000 meters. For the past few years, he’s been participating in a program called Seat2SOAR with his agency, Special Opportunities Available in Recreation (SOAR), in which people with intellectual disabilities and those without run and walk together. His running partner is Jill Bertelsen’s husband, Mike.

SOILL board member Kathy Schneidwind with Young Athletes
SOILL board member Kathy Schneidwind with Young Athletes

Kathy admits her first thought after telling Jill Bertelsen she’d participate was “I can’t jog because of my knees!” When she realized it was only a half-mile, she decided “I CAN do a half-mile on these old knees.”

Other Heartland/Area 6 Unified Relay team members are: Special Olympics athletes Kellen Ehrenhardt, Thomas Christ and Hayden Davis, law enforcement officers Nikki Bruno, Dustin Pierce and Jessika Jones, SOILL staff/board members Jill Bertelsen, Tim Flaherty and Matt Johnson, volunteer Laura Gioannini and WMBD news anchor Maria Chandler.

Participate in this exciting event as it passes through Illinois by registering for a segment of the route.  You can raise money to run, walk, jog or roll (skateboard, rollerblade or wheelchair) in a ½- mile segment or cycle in a 5-mile segment.

Illinois has two Unified Relay Across America routes traveling through the state in June:

  • Central Route – June 8 (Nashville, TN to Marion, IL) and June 9 (Marion, IL to St. Louis, MO)
  • Northern Route – June 12 (Indianapolis, IN to Chicago, IL) and June 14 (Chicago, IL to Milwaukee, WI)

For the month of May, anyone who registers for the Unified Relay and uses the promo code MM will have their registration fees waived. Register here.

Support the Heartland/Area 6 team or another Illinois Unified Relay team here.

By Michele Evans, Director of Communications