“It has been a blessing in our lives,” remarked Paula Jones, mother of longtime Special Olympics Illinois athlete, Ashley Jones. Paula is referring to their family’s experience with Special Olympics Illinois throughout the 27 years they have been involved.

“When Ashley was first born, we didn’t know she had Down syndrome, and we didn’t know what it was,” Paula said. “We were told it was best to put Ashley in a facility. But when we got involved with Special Olympics Illinois, that’s when we saw the real truth of what our child would be able to do.”

Ashley is an accomplished athlete. She is an Athlete Leader and Global Messenger, medalist at the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle, she participates in numerous sports such as snowshoe, golf, gymnastics, and bowling, and she takes part in fundraisers, such as the Chicago Ducky Derby, throughout the year.

Despite all of these accolades, Ashley says she doesn’t do it for the awards and medals, but rather because she “loves making connections with fellow athletes and spending time with teammates.” Paula says, “The athletes accept each other for who they are.” Something this family certainly holds dear.

Paula and her husband, Mike, are heavily involved in the Special Olympics Illinois Families program, which offers family members of Special Olympics Illinois athletes the opportunity to connect and get involved with events in the organization.

“Special Olympics Illinois has not only changed myself and Mike,” says Paula. “It has also affected Ashley’s three older sisters. They tell everyone about the positive impact that Special Olympics Illinois has had on our family.”

Through the Families program, Paula and Mike spend a lot of time at events speaking to new and prospective Special Olympics Illinois families about the joy that Special Olympics Illinois programming has brought to their family.

“I always tell new families to step out, take a chance, and to always ask for help,” said Paula.

The trio - Paula, Mike, and Ashley - recently appeared in the 2023 Chicago Ducky Derby PSA. One of the fun perks of being involved in the event for so long.

In fact, Ashley has been a Darling Duckling for approximately nine years. The Darling Ducklings is an athlete-led sales team for the Chicago Ducky Derby. They go out to sales events each summer, promoting duck sales for the big event in August.

The Darling Duckling’s fundraising goal this year is to sell 15,000 duck adoptions.

Being part of the Darling Ducklings team has helped Ashley “meet new people” and “build her skills,” according to Paula. Most of all, “she loves the day of the event when they dance at Family Festival then watch the ducks drop off the truck.”

It also makes Paula and Mike happy to see their daughter with her friends, “having fun, dancing, laughing, and just enjoying the event.”

“Words can never express how grateful we are for Special Olympics Illinois and all the opportunities Ashley has been provided,” concluded Paula.

To learn more about the 2023 Chicago Ducky Derby happening on Thursday, August 10 in the city, to adopt your ducks, or to support athletes like Ashley and the Darling Ducklings, click here.