Impact Stories Stories

Special Olympics Illinois Athlete Loses 40 Pounds During COVID


The term “Covid 10” has been on the lips of those who indulged during the pandemic.  The extra french fries or ice cream has provided comfort for some, but that’s not the case for one outstanding athlete named Joel Hensleigh. Like most Special Olympics Illinois athletes, Joel finds joy – win or lose – on the field of play, but recently found comfort and joy in losing more than usual. Joel has lost ALOT. He lost forty pounds, and is enjoying the benefits of his new healthy self every day.

When asked how he did it, Joel’s first response was “eat less sugar and no more junk food.” Along with better eating, the activity that he seems to enjoy the most, though, with physical, mental, and emotional health benefits, is going outside.

Joel admitted that his walks, in the past, may end at a fast food restaurant. Now, however, he walks often in the country near his parent’s home. “No Taco Bell to walk to.  No McDonalds nearby” says Joel’s mom Debbie. Instead, Joel found a love for vegetables and he and his dad, David, have creative and delicious ways to cook and enjoy them.

“We make pizza,” says Joel “and we use spinach, kale, mushrooms, zucchini, turkey pepperoni, onions, bell peppers, and a little bit of cheese.” Joel called another favorite “Mexican salad with a kick and a crunch” and said it contains “lots of greens, turkey meat with spices, and tortilla chips.” Fish or shrimp tacos also top the list.

Joel enjoys his new healthy self, and noted that he “feels 25 years younger.” He also said that his knees feel much better, which is a big plus when bowling. When competition returns, Joel will be in the bowling alley where he enjoys competing with both his Special Olympics Illinois league and another local league.  

Joel became a Special Olympics Illinois athlete when he was seven years old and, along with bowling, has competed in volleyball, softball, powerlifting, track, and now golf.  When asked about his favorite sport, though, he answered,  “Basketball is my life!” He is working on perfecting his jump shot.

Along with physical benefits that accompany living healthier, Joel is now registered as a Special Olympics Illinois Health Messenger. This will allow him to help others become motivated to change their lifestyle, too, and enjoy better health.  It is no doubt he will excel in this new role.

Heartwarming stories like Joel’s provoke a certain desire to shout “woohoo!”  It was that same sense that captured hearts at the United Center several years ago when Joel played during halftime at a Chicago Bulls game. “The Bulls weren’t doing well that night” recalled Joel’s mom, Debbie, “but when Joel’s team was playing, the crowd cheered the loudest.”

Joel Hensleigh is an inspiration. He will humbly continue to clean at the YMCA and help others. He will continue to be a great son, brother, and friend to so many. He will continue to exercise and eat well, now knowing the benefits.  The fullest benefits, however, are those that Joel may never see. Those will come through those he inspires from afar. Whether in the stands, in the store, or passing him on a walk, Joel has a contagious spirit. If you are fortunate enough to catch it, you too will be compelled to shout, “woohoooooooo!”

Joel’s inventions (with a little help from his dad)

Veggie Pizza: Use a thin, whole wheat pizza skin (from Schnucks). Spread a thin layer of pizza sauce on it (Joel likes Aldi’s tomato pesto). Joel likes to cook ground turkey with mushrooms, onions, bell pepper, garlic, oregano, and cumin and a small can of spicy tomatoes. Cook that down to make it less juicy. Add the turkey mixture on the pizza skin along with black olives and cherry tomatoes, cut in half. Then, pile on torn up kale or spinach (a lot). Sprinkle with some (not a ton) of grated cheese and bake for 10-15 minutes until cheese is melted and veggies are tender.

Mexican Salad with a Kick and a Crunch: Start with a big bowl of torn up greens (spinach, mixed greens, kale, etc). Halve about 15 little tomatoes, chop half a bell pepper, add about 1/4 cup of humus, a few dashes of hot sauce, some salsa, a squirt of either lite Ranch dressing or olive oil, a little bit of shredded cheese, and about 10-15 blue corn chips, crunched up in your hands. Stir all together and enjoy!

While Special Olympics Illinois has adapted organizing sporting events based on CDC and Illinois Department of Public Health guidelines, as an organization, they are working harder than ever to provide their athletes the means to stay fit and active. They invite you to support their athletes by visiting today and learn more about funding these vital activities.

Special Olympics Illinois is the only entity in Illinois accredited by Special Olympics, Inc. and authorized by license to use the Special Olympics™ trademark and logo.

Athlete Trades High Fives for Polar Plunge Donations


Special Olympics Illinois athlete Jonathan Mies prefers high fives in return for every $5 bill put towards his Polar Plunge fundraising efforts. 

“It all started in February when we went out by the lake near the KC Hall, where the Plunge in Region H normally takes place,” said Jonathan’s mother, Jean. “We were wondering what to do since it would be a Plunge At Home this year.”

“I don’t know if it was the way Jonathan held his hand up or if I said ‘give me a high five’ but, that was the moment it all started,” Jean added.

Jonathan is sharing virtual high fives with every $5 donation made to his Plunge At Home efforts. He traces his hand and writes the donors’ names alongside. He also sends personal thank you videos and notes.

“It happened organically and snowballed from there!”

Many donors have contributed $5 for every member of their immediate family. Jonathan has raised $1,720, far surpassing his goal of $150.

Jonathan’s family and friends have seen the impact Special Olympics Illinois has on Jonathan as well as many other individuals. When Jonathan asked for their help with his Plunge At Home fundraising efforts, they did not hesitate to donate $5, $10, $20, or even $50.

Jonathan plunged with fellow athletes, Law Enforcement Torch Run officers, and supporters. “I plunge to help other athletes like me,” he said.

Jonathan competes in bocce, swimming, soccer, and golf with the Springfield Park District. He is always willing to volunteer his time to help athletes, volunteers, and Special Olympics Illinois staff.

Rob Queenan, Region H Assistant Director has a close relationship with Jonathan.

“Whether its setting up, tearing down or just greeting people and giving them high fives a smile, or a fist bump, Jonathan always wants to help,” said Rob.

It is so inspiring when athletes like Jonathan take the lead on efforts like his “high fives for the Plunge. He should be very proud of himself, I know we all are.”

While many are missing the comradery of being together in a traditional Polar Plunge setting, athletes like Jonathan continue to find ways to keep the spirit and joy of Special Olympics alive.

You can support athletes like Jonathan by registering for or donating to the Polar Plunge. 

One SUPER Family


Special Olympics Illinois athlete Jack Klawitter didn’t just take the Plunge At Home this year…Together with his family, he took the Plunge At Home 24 times. 

Jack’s mother, Brook Klawitter, Special Olympics Illinois Vice Board Chair, and father, Dave, are longtime SUPER Plungers – an extreme version of the Plunge where brave participants camp on the shores of Lake Michigan in Evanston and run into the icy waters on the hour for 24 hours. This would have Brook and Dave’s 11th year of SUPER Plunging in Lake Michigan (and their 12th year plunging).

Jack himself is no stranger to the SUPER Plunge. He started taking 5 Plunges around the age of 9, then gradually upped that to 10 and then 15. He began taking all 24 Plunges in 2019.

“Over the years, people have come to ‘know’ us for SUPER Plunge,” says Brook.

So, when the Plunge turned virtual, they transformed their backyard into their own SUPER Plunge. Each hour came with its own theme and its own set of costumes and props.

Jack’s sisters Sophie and Mary joined in the fun, too.

“Last year Sophie was our 24-hour support person, and this year both of the girls joined us for a number of the plunges.  They have both asked to take all 24 next year.”

They kicked off with a “Family Feud” style video

Other themes included The Wizard of Oz, Field of Dreams, Castaway, and more. All 24 Plunges can be found here.

The Klawitter Family far surpassed their $10,000 fundraising goal. To date, the family has collected nearly $13,000 and hopes to hit $15,000 before the Polar Plunge season ends.

“As a family, we’ve taken over 650 plunges,” says Brook.

Brook feels it’s important for their family to do their part to give back to both Special Olympics Illinois and Law Enforcement Torch Run. 

“Jack isn’t the only one that has benefitted from Special Olympics Illinois,” Brook explains. 

“His benefits may be more obvious, but Dave and I found a family and village to help us raise Jack and the girls. The girls have been as welcomed into Special Olympics as Jack. They have participated alongside Jack, and have learned competitive sports skills, compassion, leadership and more.”

You can support athletes like Jack, and families like The Klawitters, by registering for or donating to the Plunge At Home.

Chicago Baseball Bash in Mesa, AZ


Experience a Chicago-style party after a Cubs Spring Training Game! The event is a traditional Chi-Town party filled with your favorite celebrities entertaining the crowd!

What a great way to enhance your spring training trip, by going to Chicago Baseball Bash for Special Olympics on March 20, 2021, from 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. at The Sheraton in Wrigleyville West, Mesa, Arizona. This event is hosted by George Wendt of Cheers and other sports celebrities. All proceeds benefit the athletes of Special Olympics Illinois.

Chicago Baseball Bash tickets are $40 per person and include entertainment, a Chicago-themed buffet, and open bar of beer, wine and soda.

Appropriately, this event will be held in Mesa, the first-ever Autism Certified City in the U.S. designated by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES), the result of nearly a year-long quest to tailor travel experiences for individuals with autism and their families.

In total, almost 100 businesses and organizations in Mesa and the surrounding area completed autism certification training, and are now each deemed a Certified Autism Center by IBCCES. The effort was immediately embraced by other city factions including the Mesa Chamber of Commerce and numerous nonprofit organizations. More than 500 Mesa Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities employees and 1,200 plus Mesa Police Department public safety and law enforcement officers are fully committed to autism certification training. To date, nearly 4,000 community members have completed or committed to the autism certification.

For more information, or to purchase tickets, please visit Chicago Baseball Bash.

Be Bold, Get Cold, and Be Kind


The cold weather did not stop Special Olympics Illinois athlete Kaylee McLaughlin from taking the Plunge At Home. Kaylee took the Polar Plunge from home on Sunday, February 21, where she took an icy dip into a pool.

Like many, this was her first time plunging at home. Historically, she has plunged into Wick’s Lake in Rock Island with family, friends, and supporters by her side.  She has also participated in the WIU Plunge in Macomb and the Lake Storey Plunge in Galesburg. Kaylee’s first plunge was in 2017, but she has been supporting her Father’s plunge efforts for over a decade. 

There was no shortage of creativity when it comes to finding ways to encourage family, friends, and the public to champion her Plunge At Home endeavor. From posting countdown photos and videos on her personal Facebook page to selling bracelets and homemade enchiladas to the local Warren County community.

Kaylee is consistently one of the top Polar Plunge fundraisers. This year, Kaylee surpassed her fundraising goal by raising over $5,600. Polar Plunge isn’t the only event Kaylee champions. She supports the Ducky Derby, local Region F fundraisers, and so much more!

Despite the pandemic, in 2020, Kaylee raised over $13,000 for the organization.

When asked where her motivation comes from, Kaylee said, “I love Special Olympics. More than almost anything!”

“I love all the opportunities Special Olympics Illinois offers the athletes, especially the fundraising opportunities that allow me to fundraise my heart out so the program can continue to grow.”

To learn more about the Polar Plunge and how to get involved, please visit