Special Olympics Illinois athlete Matthew Davis, 36, is easy to love, according to his dad, Dr. Jim Davis, and his stepmom, JoAnn Pellegrino. “Everything about him is awesome,” JoAnn said. “He keeps me on track. He plans out our meals. Picks out our grocery list. I would be lost without him.”

“He has an incredible memory,” added Jim. “He’ll remember things from three years ago, even if we visited a place only once.”

Both say the growth they’ve seen in Matthew inspires them. “Special Olympics Illinois has done amazing things for every athlete,” JoAnn said. “And for Matthew, he went from withdrawn and antisocial and now, you see it in his face: ‘I belong.’”

One of Jim’s favorite moments was when Matthew lost a race because he waited for everyone to catch up to him. “He slowed down until everyone caught up,” Jim smiled.

JoAnn has spent many years volunteering for Special Olympics Illinois. It was through her that Matthew started competing. “I had an aunt with special needs,” JoAnn said. “And she didn’t get to live her life out in the world.” It’s because of Special Olympics, JoAnn said, that athletes are embraced today. “My aunt didn’t have Special Olympics. I’m very passionate that everyone is included.”

JoAnn works for Gallagher, a global insurance brokerage, risk management and consulting services firm, and Special Olympics Illinois partner and sponsor. “Gallagher’s initiative is for inclusion,” Jo Ann noted. “I’m really proud to be behind that. I appreciate that my company supports inclusion for all.”

She first heard about the partnership when Gallagher sponsored their employees to take a Plunge at their local Polar Plunge. “I did it,” JoAnn laughed, “it was cold.”

This year, you can find JoAnn selling merchandise and raising funds at the Decatur Polar Plunge on March 4.

“When you go to schools now, you see that everybody mixes. There’s no division between the students with and without intellectual disabilities. It’s just so nice,” JoAnn said. “That’s because of Special Olympics Illinois. And that’s why I volunteer.”

The Decatur Polar Plunge benefiting Special Olympics Illinois will be Saturday, March 4. To commit to taking the Plunge, volunteer, donate, or to learn more, please visit PlungeIllinois.com