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“If Jamal can do it, so can I,” remarked Sonji Palmer, mother of Special Olympics Illinois Region J athlete, Jamal Selesi.

a man and woman posing for a picture

This mother and coach finds inspiration in her son. “It has been a long journey from first receiving Jamal’s diagnosis to now helping him realize he is more than his disability,” Sonji said. “I meet Jamal where he is and make sure he understands how to be productive.”

Sonji wants her son to be a “contributor,” which is why she encourages Jamal to stay active by working at a local gas station, bussing tables at a restaurant at Eckert’s Farm, and helping his grandmother with lawn care each week.

Having been involved with Special Olympics Illinois for five years, Jamal says being part of the programming makes him “happy.” More specifically, Jamal cherishes the time he gets to spend with fellow teammates from Without Limits – Team Galaxy. “It’s a great team with great friends,” he says.

a man speaking into a microphone

However, sport is not Jamal’s only specialty. His passion also lies in performing - and more specifically, rapping on stage.

“I have been rapping since I was five years old,” said Jamal, or “J-Man” as his fans refer to him. “I have performed at Giant Steps of St. Louis, outside of Busch Stadium, at the Moose Lodge in Swansea, and the Autism One Conference in Arizona.”

Added to the list of performances is the annual Taste of Maplewood festival, which is attended by thousands in the community. Each year Jamal takes the stage without an ounce of nerves, alongside the biggest advocate and cheerleader in life – his mother.

Sonji says a lot of people tend to underestimate her son’s capabilities. “I post his accomplishments online so people can see that he is more than his disability,” she said.

One Sport Leads to Feeling of Acceptance

Both Sonji and Jamal say that being part of Special Olympics Illinois has transformed their lives. “Special Olympics Illinois has changed my life exponentially,” states Sonji. She noted that after some initial hesitancy in getting her son to play with the local softball team, Jamal was finally able to find a place where he felt a sense of belonging.

“After Jamal started playing on that first softball team, he received his first ever invitation to a friend’s house,” remarked Sonji. “What I desired his whole life was for Jamal to make friends.” And Special Olympics Illinois brought that opportunity to him.

a man hitting a ball with a tennis racket

Sonji says the goal of their team Without Limits – Team Galaxy is “to bring young people into the fold so they can discover teamwork, build self-esteem, practice advocacy for themselves, and ultimately have fun.” Sonji continued, “We want to promote lifelong learning. Just because our athletes are developmentally delayed does not mean they’re not able. They just take longer to get where we are as adults.”

After starting with softball, Jamal has since delved into bowling, volleyball, basketball, swimming, tennis, and golf to name a few. “Jamal now participates in the very things he was not able to do in middle and high school because of his disabilities,” says Sonji, “When he wins, he proudly wears his medals and when he does not win, he knows he must work harder next time.”

To help more athletes find a sense of belonging, click here.