It was sometime in 2000, according to Larry Blankenbaker. He and Dave Breen were at an impasse.

The Special Olympics Illinois CEO told Larry that unfortunately, it’s not going to happen. “I’ve tried and I’ve tried.” Dave said, sitting next to a window in Larry’s restaurant. “I don’t see how we can make it work.”

Larry was insistent. He knew it could be done. He had seen it before. He wanted the Parade of Athletes and the Opening Ceremony back in downtown Galena. “I felt like we were losing something,” Larry said. “The town was losing something.”

Larry doesn’t remember what year it all changed, but he remembered what it was like before. The townspeople of Galena lining the streets. Athletes in every corner. It was a big deal, Larry reminisced. But then, one year, a snowstorm came. And the year after, it was bitterly cold. And before Larry knew it, the Parade and Opening Ceremony weren’t downtown, anymore.

a group of people holding signs and flags

So, Larry said he started talking to people. It would be a logistical challenge, he was told. Someone would have to bus hundreds of athletes downtown. Someone would have to feed the athletes as well. And Dave wondered if it could be done in time.

Then, Larry asked Dave one question. “Why don’t we feed them in the restaurants downtown?”

Larry saw Dave’s face light up. “They’d all have to be fed the same thing. Can you do that?” Larry said he could.

It took a couple more years, according to Larry. But then Dave called him and said, “You got it. The athletes will come down at 6:00 PM, and they need to be on the bus by 7:15.” Larry organized the Galena restaurants and the local food distributor. They all came together and made a bread bowl with a beef stew. And, according to Larry, everyone was fed and on the bus by 7:00 PM.

This wasn’t Larry’s first foray into volunteering with Special Olympics Illinois. If he had to guess, he’s been involved with Winter Games for 36 years. He first volunteered with alpine skiing, and what amazed him about the athletes then, still amazes him today.

Larry and Andy Blankenship

“I used to coach college football,” Larry said. “The thing that I often said is if half of my players had as much heart, desire, and willingness to improve themselves as Special Olympics Illinois athletes, we would’ve been national champions.” Larry laughed to himself. “Every year I’m amazed at how much better the athletes get.”

And every year, Larry said, something still surprises him. How each athlete he meets always remembers his name.

“The whole thing about Special Olympics Illinois is that it should be a lesson to all of us,” Larry noted. “If we believe in ourselves, and if we honestly want to become the best we can, there’s nothing to keep us from doing what these athletes do.”

Learn more about the 2023 Winter Games here.