Illinois State University: The long-standing support team behind Special Olympics Illinois

How the school continues to provide Special Olympics with a home base

By Tierney Anderson and Lexie Bradley

Tierney and Lexie are students at Pepperdine University

NORMAL, IL, – For the past 50 years, Special Olympics has been transforming lives through the joy of sport, empowering children and adults with intellectual disabilities through sports training and athletic competition across the world. But in no city can you see the impact of this organization and their work like you can in Normal, Illinois.

Special Olympics’ first International Summer Games took place back in 1968 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois, where Special Olympics Illinois (SOILL) was headquartered. It wasn’t until 1977 that SOILL moved to Normal, also the home of Illinois State University (ISU).

SOILL’s CEO and President Dave Breen said, “It came from a conversation about trying to expand the program and make it statewide.” There was an interest in utilizing the ISU sports facilities for SOILL’s future Summer Games. Upon ISU’s approval, SOILL began working out of an office given to them at ISU’s University High School. They remained there until 1989, when their current Normal headquarters were built.

SOILL Regional Director Kevin O’Brien said, “That move opened up doors for us to use the university facilities and create relationships with all the different departments on campus.” SOILL now works with ISU’s Office of Residential Life to house all of their athletes for the Summer Games, Facility Services to manage each of the sports facilities used in the Games, and IT to improve SOILL’s cyber security.

The ISU Athletics Department also plays a major role in the Summer Games. Breen said, “A lot of the student-athletes are still on campus [during the summer], and that’s really what we tap into for our Summer Games.” Breen considers the ISU football team, led by Head Coach Brock Spack, to be major supporters of SOILL’s work. Spack said, “Our guys are very gifted athletically, and I think it’s a real humbling experience for our players to watch how competitive, how passionate these Special Olympians are.”

The football team helps set up, run, and break down SOILL’s on-campus powerlifting competitions. They also move the Summer Games athletes and coaches into their on-campus housing for the Games. Spack said, “I’ve had several guys that have worked the whole weekend of the Summer Games come in my office, guys you would never think would come in, and say, ‘Coach, that was the greatest thing I’ve ever done’ on more than one occasion.”

Spack and members of the ISU football team at the 2018 Polar Plunge Photo courtesy of ISU Football

ISU students are able to contribute to SOILL’s work during the school year, as well. Student workers are hired in sports management, marketing, and accounting and financial services positions for SOILL. Breen also said that ISU’s Greek organizations helped raise about $18,000 at this year’s SOILL Polar Plunge fundraiser, where participants collect pledges to jump into an icy lake. Spack and members of his football team were there volunteering as security and participating in the challenge.

The school’s MBA program has done studies and projects on ways that SOILL can enhance their fundraising efforts, to which Breen said, “we’re giving them real-life vocational skills and work study skills that they’re going to need in the future, but they’re using to better our organization. It’s been a really great relationship.”

O’Brien cites ISU’s handicap-accessible campus as a major benefit to SOILL’s work there. He said, “Illinois State is not just handicap accessible in their facilities, almost all places are nowadays. But the geographic set-up of their sports facilities are all within a 6-block space on the same blacktop, and you can get from place to place without any problem at all.”

What O’Brien considers to be the hidden gem in SOILL and ISU’s work together, though, is ISU’s special education program. He said, “Illinois State is a premiere school for teachers in special education. It has been for years — it was back in the early 70s when we got on campus, it was even that way before then.” Graduates of this program have gone on to become SOILL volunteers, coaches, and staff members.

This year’s Illinois Summer Games was a 50th-Anniversary celebration. Over 4,000 athletes and 1,700 coaches will be heading to Illinois to compete in athletics, bocce, Unified bocce, gymnastics, soccer, powerlifting, and swimming. The Opening Ceremony took place at Hancock Stadium, home of the ISU football team.

O’Brien called it a “huge weeklong celebration that will include Unified Sports and recognition of the abilities, rather than the disabilities, of our athletes. It always is a great opportunity to showcase what all sports can be to all people.”