Impact Stories Stories

A Great Woman Puts on a Great Concert for a Great Cause


Ever since she was young, Special Olympics has played a huge role in Lauren McClusky’s life. Her dad, Jeff McClusky (Illinois Special Olympics Foundation Board Member), worked on the Special Christmas compilation CDs when she was growing up, which started their family’s involvement. Lauren’s sister and her began fundraising for Special Olympics with lemonade stands in their front yard in Evanston. They volunteered at games in Chicago, Bloomington, and even got to travel to the games in Alaska, Ireland, and China, where they made many friends along the way!

In the Fall of 2002, Lauren’s dad and her traveled to China with the Special Olympics Washington D.C. group (including Timothy Shriver) for their first National games in Xi’an. They attended receptions, visited the Great Wall, and experienced much of the Chinese culture in Beijing before traveling to Central China. At a press conference during their trip, she donated the money she raised with her sister at their lemonade stands. A news publication in China printed an article about it the following month, calling Lauren the “Blonde Girl from California, America.” The trip was a life–changing experience and gave her further enthusiasm and love towards the Special Olympics athletes.

When Lauren was in high school in 2007, her friends and her decided to throw somewhat of a “battle of the bands” style concert to raise money and awareness for the organization. They partnered with Metro Chicago and Special Olympics Illinois. Their first year, they successfully raised $10K and had 800 attendees on a Sunday afternoon. This event, originally called McFest and now Nelarusky, has grown into an annual Official Lollapalooza Aftershow that has raised nearly $400K througout the last 14 years. Nationally renowned acts such as Imagine Dragons, Alabama Shakes, Icona Pop, Sylvan Esso, Jon Bellion, Quinn XCII, and many more have played to a sold out crowd of 1,150 attendees, who are not only there to watch a concert, but to support and learn more about Special Olympics Illinois.

Special Olympics Illinois Global Messenger’s Barbara Kozdron and Christine Maxwell alternate giving a heartfelt speech each year that is always received with applause and tears of joy. It is hands down the most special part of the event. Feeling the happiness and excitement over Special Olympics Illinois, coming not only from Barb and Christine, but from the audience members, is truly an incredible thing.

Special Olympics has changed Lauren’s life in many ways. It has given her lifelong friends among the athletes (Barb, Christine, Sofia, Bree, Dustin, and so many more!), experiences all over the world, and Nelarusky. She is grateful to be able to give back to an organization that has touched her heart for all her life.

This year’s sold out show on July 27 is another great success with headliner Omar Apollo along with Serena Isioma and Oston.

Thank you to our presenting sponsor Toyota of Lincoln Park, as well as other great partners, including: Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, Shure, Navy Pier, Corcoran Family Foundation, Billboard, Belsley Family, Better World Records, Waterman Bank, Eddie O’Laughlin, Mark Fox, Warner Music Nashville, Stair One, Inc., Rios Family, LaVanway Family, GT Mobility, Lava Records, Koehler Family, Jim DiBiasi Foundation, Premier Foundation, JiMMY? Bars! and Culture Wars.

New Lenox Athlete Selected to Represent Jewel-Osco and “Change for Champions”


Throughout the month of July, Jewel-Osco’s “Change for Champions” celebrates Allie Leehaug of New Lenox, Illinois. Allie represents the more than 23,100 athletes who compete through programming at Special Olympics Illinois.

Allie is also employed at Jewel-Osco, where she began working nearly 13 years ago. In addition to her time there, she is also a long-time Special Olympics Illinois athlete. She began competing in 1999 at age 11.

Over the past two decades, Allie has participated in track and field, traditional and Unified volleyball, basketball, bowling, softball, soccer and, her favorite sport, floor hockey. She enjoys the sport’s speed.

Currently, Allie competes with Lincolnway Special Recreation Association (LWSRA) and the Oak Lawn Park District. Allie was selected to run the Pentathlon as part of Team Illinois at the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games in New Jersey where she earned both bronze and gold medals.

Additionally, she has been honored as the 2010 LWSRA Athlete of the Year, and a four-time Ron Knisley Spirit of the Game Award recipient. Allie also serves as Special Olympics Illinois Global Messenger and Darling Duckling – the athlete sales team for the Chicago Ducky Derby.

Jewel-Osco has relaunched its annual register fundraising campaign through the “Making Change” donation program called “Change for Champions” to support the athletes of Special Olympics Illinois like Allie. The promotion runs July 1-31 at the 188 Jewel-Osco locations, where customers will be encouraged to make a donation during checkout.

Kathy Lillie, a Jewel-Osco Personnel Coordinator, who began working with Allie in 2008, nominated her for this year’s ambassadorship.

“Allie is a reliable and hardworking employee with great customer service,” says Lillie. “I nominated Allie because of her involvement with community activities and her popularity with both employees and customers.”

Her local store, fellow employees, and members of the Special Olympics Illinois staff threw a surprise party for Allie to announce her selection as this year’s ambassador. Watch the video below to see her reaction.  

Jewel-Osco is a long-standing partner of Special Olympics Illinois and it’s events. Coming up on August 5, the organization is serving as the presenting sponsor for a favorite Chicago summertime event, the Chicago Ducky Derby.  Last month, Jewel-Osco also sponsored the Special Olympics Virtual Summer Games.

“We’re so appreciative of our community partners that have shared visions of a world of inclusion, like Jewel-Osco,” said Valerie Day, Chief Development Officer, Special Olympics Illinois. “Not only have they stepped up to the challenge when it comes to their fundraising efforts, but Jewel-Osco provides jobs for many Special Olympics athletes throughout Illinois. Opportunities like these provide athletes with the ability to learn valuable life skills and be productive members of their communities.”

To participate, find the Jewel-Osco location nearest you here. To learn more about the Chicago Ducky Derby, visit

Birds of a Feather: Inclusion Is Sweet at the Moose & Me Bakery


Megan Elder has always had a vision for inclusion in her community. More than 15 years ago, she started a ministry for teens with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Since then, she and her husband, Justin, have adopted two girls with Down syndrome, Mila and Audrey. Mila (nicknamed Moose) loved to bake from an early age and so began the vision of Moose & Me.

“Moose & Me got started when we adopted our daughter Mila who loved to bake from a very young age,” says Megan Elder. “Baking for us is time together. It’s a lot of laughing and getting messy and having fun. Being able to create things we’re proud of.”

The company describes themselves as a small team of creative and enthusiastic bakery artists serving a purpose grander than merely delighting your taste buds – but they certainly do that, too. Moose, Megan, and team craft delicious, intricately detailed treats to make life a little sweeter.  

Megan and Justin hope to employ adults of all abilities while also creating meaningful interactions within the Naperville community.

“We thought ‘wow, wouldn’t it be great if she could bake for her whole life?’ And the dream of Moose & Me got started.”

Currently, they employ two bakers, Special Olympics Illinois athletes Jake Lucas and Michelle Anderson. Michelle doubles as a Darling Duckling. She enjoys selling ducks in her free time with her best friend, Mallory Taylor, who also happens to be the 2021 Chicago Ducky Derby ambassador.

Like Special Olympics, inclusion is integral to Megan and Justin. It’s important for them to employee adults of all abilities.

“Inclusion is really important to us. Mila learns so much from her peers and her peers learn so much from her. The more we could create those opportunities for that to happen we feel the better off all of us will be.”

Someday the Elders hope to open a physical location within Naperville. They also look forward to Mila’s sports career.

“Mila will definitely be a Special Olympics athlete!”

In honor of the Chicago Ducky Derby, Moose & Me is featuring duck-shaped vanilla sugar cookies. You can purchase cookies here or learn more about the company at

The Chicago Ducky Derby is an annual event in which more than 65,000 ducks race to the finish line on the Chicago River. Many athletes like Michelle help sell ducks throughout the summer for the Darling Ducklings team.

Thank you for reading our Birds of a Feather series as we approach the 2021 Chicago Ducky Derby, which will be back in person this year at the Chicago River on August 5.

To learn more about the event or to support the Moose & Me sales team by adopting a duck, please visit

How I Continue Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s Legacy of Inclusion


By Daniel Smrokowski, Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger, SO Illinois, Special Olympics North America Medium Blog, July 2021

Birds of a Feather: Brothers and Basketball


Since Ethan Gowaski could dribble a basketball, he has been involved with Special Olympics Illinois. From then on, Ethan and his family have been impacted by the organization in several ways.

Basketball is undoubtedly Ethan’s favorite sport. Ethan’s team has qualified to go to State Basketball multiple times in the past and his family looks forward to watching him play in front of the big crowds – especially his brother Alex. 

One of Alex’s favorite things to do when he is home from college is act as the play-by-play announcer while Ethan dribbles and shoots around on the driveway.

A favorite memory of Alex’s is Ethan making the game-winning shot at a game. During the ‘pack-the-house’ event, Ethan had the ball and made the buzzer-beater as the crowd went wild. Ethan then pointed directly to where his family was watching from the stands and pumped his fist into the air. For the brothers, that picture perfect moment had been practiced – and would continue to be recreated – in their driveway over and over again. 

More than anything, Ethan’s involvement with SOILL makes Alex proud to be his brother. While playing, Ethan will look into the crowd to make sure that his brother is watching. His family enjoys watching Ethan compete as his love and dedication for the sport grows.

Alex knew he wanted to become more involved after seeing how much happiness being a SOILL athlete brought to Ethan and his teammates. He did so by becoming the Chicago Ducky Derby intern in 2019. Alex says that his involvement with Special Olympics Illinois has only made the two closer. Alex and Ethan were able to work together on fundraising for the event. Ethan enjoyed spending with his brother, especially when Alex would wear the Splash mascot costume at sales events. 

Alex recalls his favorite part of working with Special Olympics Illinois was how many smiles the many programs create. 

“Whether it’s athletes achieving new records for themselves, families being proud of what their loved one accomplishes, or staff seeing the long hours pay off, there are always smiles at any Special Olympics Illinois event,” said Alex. “And the Chicago Ducky Derby is no exception.”

The Chicago Ducky Derby is an annual event in which more than 65,000 ducks race to the finish line on the Chicago River. Many athletes like Ethan help sell ducks throughout the summer for the Darling Ducklings team.

Stay tuned for our next Birds of a Feather article, where we dive into the lives of Special Olympics Illinois athletes who are supported in part by the Chicago Ducky Derby.

To support these athletes, you can adopt a duck at