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There’s something between Zinyra “Z” Ross and her mother, Simyra “S” Ross.

Call it the bond of parent and child. Call it a mother’s love. Call it spiritual.

It’s something, however. You will feel it.

She has been an athlete for Special Olympics Illinois since she was 13 or 14. She really had never heard of the organization before. She certainly did not imagine the places it would take her.

Zinyra likes to be called “Z,” because, as she says, “I’m just me.”

Z is Black. Z is Irish. Z rides horses on a traditional equestrian team. Z sells her art and her bracelets at booths and fairs across the state. Z is an Athlete Leader for Special Olympics Illinois. Z is a member of Special Olympics Illinois Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB) Committee. Z’s art hangs in the United Club at the airport. Z has met various governors of Illinois, a few times now. But if you ask Zinyra, she smiles and says, “I’m just Z.”

a person standing next to a table with flowers and a sign

She does not downplay her accomplishments, though. She has a quiet nobleness about her. She had a lot of different emotions when she saw her art hanging in the United Club. “I was happy, proud,” Z said. “No one knew anything about me. I was just judged as a person.”

To Z, that is the way inclusion should be.

But to be clear, inclusion for her is not giving everyone a seat at the table and then walking away, Simyra added. “She has to advocate for herself on a regular basis,” she said. “We talk about diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. And even after all her accomplishments, she still has to work harder, longer. She’s overshadowed—people walk in front of her.”

To Simyra, the biggest gift of inclusion is Z’s ability to teach and learn at the same time. Often, Z will tell someone—a customer, a member of the Board of Directors, an audience of 10, or 100—she has an intellectual disability. Simyra said she sees how when Z challenges herself and others, it becomes a teaching moment for all.

And for both Z and Simyra, all of it comes down to the beauty in differences.

person

“It’s important for Z to express her identity,” said Simyra. “Because Special Olympics Illinois introduced her to a community where everyone was not the same but came together in their differences.”

Z is also self-taught as an artist. One day she sketched and sketched and drew and painted and drew some more. She showed her sketchbook to her mother. Soon, she was recognized by the town of Aurora’s Advisory Commission on Disabilities as a Bright Light Recipient. That was in February 2021.

She then participated in Aurora’s Disabilities Family Resource Fair. Her booth got the attention of Gladys Piper, who works at the Illinois State Treasurer’s Office. According to Simyra, Gladys told her, “Z needs to be recognized, celebrated, and the world needs to know her more.”

On Wednesday, March 15, Z was given the Treasurer’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Arts and Humanities by Illinois State Treasurer Michael Frerichs. “Nothing related to being disabled,” Z said. “Just one of eight women picked.”

When Treasurer Frerichs introduced Z, he listed her many accomplishments. Graduating high school with a G.P.A. above 3.15, working at Brookfield Zoo, competing as an athlete for Special Olympics Illinois. He called her confident, courageous, and admired.

Mike Frerichs et al. holding a stick

“Z is an incredible artist,” Treasurer Frerichs said. “Her characters are whimsical and 100% original. She uses the gifts and talents she has discovered to create her future with creativity. More importantly,” he added, “she inspires so many others to follow their own dreams.”

There was sunlight from the window on Z as she walked to the podium. Her speech was taped to the back of a piece of art she had made. She dictated it to her mother the night before and Simyra wrote it down, word for word.

She started with gratitude. For the other women who were nominated. For the State Treasurer’s Office support of Illinois ABLE. For Gladys Piper. For Special Olympics Illinois, for the Brookfield Zoo, and for United Airlines.

Z then thanked her mother, Simyra, who, “made sure people always heard my voice. A voice no one wanted to hear. Because of my speech and my learning and developmental disability.”

Simyra sat, second row, with her phone up and recording. Z ended her speech by saying the award was her foundation to build on for diversity, inclusion, and equity.

Z was received with loud and sincere applause. She posed for pictures with the other recipients, as well as her friends, family, and community. Her mother hugged her and congratulated her for being a “fearless dreamer.”

“This award highlights the many accomplishments Zinyra has on and off the field,” said Cindy Villafuerte, Chief Diversity Officer and member of its DEIB Committee. “She has grown tremendously through her Special Olympics Illinois involvement, overcoming many obstacles placed in front of her as a young black woman with disabilities,” Cindy noted. “She represents what we all know to be true; the fabric of our society is strengthened through inclusion. As we celebrate women’s history month, we are so proud to see her recognized for her talents and contributions to the community.”

a group of people eating at a restaurant table

After the ceremony, Z sat for lunch at a table with Michael Frerichs. She listened to him a lot. She said she learns by listening. Simyra sat at a table a few feet away. The sun now came down on Simyra. “She was a girl born on the southside of Chicago,” Simyra said. “My daughter is eating lunch with the State Treasurer. I could’ve never imagined something like this.”