How do you want to be remembered? Or better yet, will you be remembered?
My approach has long been to leave this world better than when I first entered it. Certainly that’s a gigantic task that comes with many options and challenges. And I must admit my personal path to making a difference really didn’t become clear until my younger son, Matthew, came into my life 21 years ago.
Matt was diagnosed with autism when he was 2 and it immediately disrupted many of the plans my wife, Karyn, and I had for him. But those were OUR plans. What was Matt looking at? What was he hoping for? What was important to realize — and accept — was that as parents our job was to give Matt and his older brother, Mark, every opportunity to maximize their skills and abilities and introduce them to their respective possibilities. Thankfully, Karyn made sure none of us never lost that focus.
Matt didn’t verbally communicate to us in words that made sense until he was 6 years old, but we began to sense his capabilities and likes early on. Everything seemed to point toward sports – following in this former sportswriter’s footsteps, except Matt was a much better athlete even back then than I ever was. The question became how do we get him involved with appropriate programming and with other children who have special needs?
That’s where Special Olympics Illinois came into the picture. And that’s when I personally began to understand what my purpose in life would be. Through the Special Olympics programs offered by Lincolnway Special Recreation Association in New Lenox, Ill., a whole new world of opportunity was presented to Matt – and to me. Matt had the chance to participate in numerous Special Olympics activities and it enabled me to be there with him as a volunteer parent – especially in basketball, a sport I’ve had the pleasure of refereeing now for 43 years. That’s when I found the path to making that difference.
Over the years I’ve not only been able to watch Matt blossom into a gold medal champion in numerous Special Olympics sports, but have actually been directly involved in some of those activities as a basketball referee, softball umpire and volleyball official. And, of course, there are countless other programs I’ve had a chance to volunteer for over the years.
The ironic part of it all is in my attempt to give back through Matt, I’ve received so much more in return. It seems unfair at times, but that’s the reality of it all. Had it not been for Matt introducing me to the world of Special Olympics, in no way would I have discovered all of the cool opportunities that were available to me out there. For instance, I currently assist Special Olympics Illinois and the Illinois High School Association in driving awareness of persons with abilities and increasing volunteerism within all SOILL-IHSA Unified sports and activities. The number of volunteer referees for both traditional and Unified Basketball are on the rise because of this emerging partnership.
I currently assist Special Olympics Illinois and the Illinois High School Association in driving awareness of persons with abilities and increasing volunteerism within all SOILL-IHSA Unified sports and activities. The number of volunteer referees for both traditional and Unified Basketball are on the rise because of this emerging partnership.
There’s also my involvement with Special Olympics and the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association. I’m currently working with SOILL and IBCA’s executive team so that someday soon, hopefully, IBCA’s Hall of Fame will also open its doors to Special Olympics Illinois athletes, coaches, officials, and friends.
Personally, there probably has not been no greater honor and privilege than being invited to referee the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles. Sharing the same court with another veteran Special Olympics Illinois referee, Jerry Blum, and officiating games involving teams from many parts of the globe will always be my pinnacle. I’ll forever remember the warm smiles, hugs, and high fives from all involved. And then joining Blum to referee the celebrity basketball game that features the likes of James Worthy, Dikembe Mutumbo, Glenn “Doc” Rivers, Sam Perkins, and others was the ultimate thrill.
But the most poignant moment in L.A. came during the Summer Games Opening Ceremonies at the Coliseum. I looked over to Matt and realized this was HIS party, these were HIS people and this time we were HIS guests. His eyes were as big as silver dollars as the parade of nations and dignitaries made their collective way onto the field.
Recognize a recurring theme here? While trying to create a better life experience for Matt and his Special Olympics colleagues through volunteering, I’ve received so much more in return when I wasn’t expecting anything.
That is what makes Special Olympics so great and special. This is why I’m so passionate about the cause. This is why I strongly invite everyone who hasn’t already done so to consider sharing their time and expertise with this wonderful organization.
This is what I hope you will remember.
By Bob Reczek
A Mom’s Story of Her Son – Matthew Schuler
My son Matthew “Matt” Schuler was first introduced to Special Olympics in High School. Hinsdale South had a basketball team and this was the first time Matt ever competed with athletes who shared his same skill level.
The first time I saw Matt compete, I was overcome with emotion. He looked comfortable, confident and proud to be on that court. It is a very humbling experience. To this day, I am still touched watching him, as well as the other athletes competing.
That was the start of a new beginning for Matt and for the past 16 years he has participated in several Special Olympic sports; soccer, softball, volleyball, basketball, floor hockey and power lifting. He has gone to State in a few of these sports and has won gold, silver and bronze medals, and has made many friends along the way.
But he found his true calling with Powerlifting. He was chosen to compete in the USA Open Nationals in May 2019 along with Brandon Moody who has been with Matt in Powerlifting for a few years now so it was fitting they attend the competition together, both winning gold medals. I asked Matt how he felt about being chosen to participate, and he said excited and proud.
Even though Matt has a huge support system at home, his belief in himself is due in large part to Special Olympics. I believe Special Olympics gives the gift of life to individuals with disabilities.
Special Olympics has instilled a level of confidence in these Matt that goes far beyond winning a gold medal. This confidence empowers individuals to be the best that they can be. They feel important; they are equals in society and believe anything is possible.
He was chosen as a Global Messenger for Special Olympics in October 2019. This was another highlight for Matt. He was so thrilled to attend the training class in Springfield along with another of his friends he met through Special Olympics. He was beaming. He couldn’t wait to show us his briefcase and his very own business cards. At that moment, I thought to myself this journey he has been on will continue throughout every aspect of his life.
While volunteering at “Cop on a Rooftop,” he was approached by one of the Plainfield Police officers and asked if he’d be interested in doing volunteer work for Special Olympics and the Police Department. That led to Matt becoming an Ambassador for the Plainfield Police Department to promote Special Olympics. This was a perfect opportunity for Matt to reach out to the community regarding individuals with disabilities. I attend the meetings with Matt and they go through various fundraising events they are planning. They ask him his opinion regarding the events, merchandise they may be selling, etc. This alone makes him feel like he is truly part of a team; they value his opinion.
He has volunteered at several of their events. One of the events he participated in was the Armored Truck Pull to raise money for Special Olympics. He was one of a team of five. It was also his first speaking engagement where he introduced himself to the crowd as the Ambassador for the Plainfield Police Department and spoke about Special Olympics.
If anyone ever has a chance to attend a Special Olympics event, I know it will change their lives forever. I don’t think you can truly explain the feeling you get inside watching these individuals pouring their hearts outs, giving their all. They truly live up to the motto for Special Olympics.
Matt is also serving his community during a very difficult time; the COVID-19 Pandemic. He works at Mariano’s and is considered an “essential employee.” He is very dedicated and takes his job to heart. He is always trying to help people as best he can.
We couldn’t be more proud of Matt. There aren’t enough words to express our gratitude to Special Olympics and the wonderful coaches he has had along the way that have attributed to Matt’s growth and great life experiences that have made him the amazing young man he is today.
Special Olympics Illinois in Coordination with Protected Tomorrows is Offering…
2020 Parent University Webinar Classes!
While most of us are hunkered down at home these days, we would like to offer these 2020 Parent University webinar classes. Each week a new webinar will be added, complimentary! We are all in this together!
At Protected Tomorrows, they know that caring and planning for the future of a family member with special needs is often overwhelming. They take your hand and guide you through the process of planning that future, alleviating your anxieties and transforming your uncertainty into positive action that not only secures a brighter future for your loved one with special needs, but helps you and your family member to grow on your journey together.
Here is the information you will need to access, for free, the 2020 Parent University recorded webinar classes:
Class Description: The key to a more secure fulfilling future is blending realism with hope. That takes knowledge, but also a willingness to learn about the many tools and techniques to help you get started. In this class we will work together to start identifying the goals you want to achieve and the dangers you’ll want to avoid.
Instructions for using a Coupon Code: Click on the link above. Add the item to your cart. Click View Cart and then type the Coupon Code: ex. 2020pu1kick. Click Apply Coupon. The Cart Total will appear and will be $0.00. Click Proceed to Checkout, complete the required information, and then Place Order. On the Order Received page, click Watch Video. Please note, you are able to add all four classes to your cart and apply all four coupon codes at the same time.
Class Description: This team that you comprise is so important to ensure your child’s future success! In this class we will focus on the importance of picking the right people for the right job. We will start on how to build the team – making it easier for your future caregiver and educating your trustee.
SOILL is getting in the game! Four Illinois athletes will be soon be racing to be named the winner of an upcoming Forza Motorsports eSports competition.
Forty Special Olympics athletes from across the country are preparing to battle for the title of fastest racer. Starting at 2:00 PM on Saturday, May 30, a captive audience will have a front row seat via SOILL’s Twitch.tv channel. The multi-hour event will conclude with an awards ceremony taking place inside the popular game Minecraft.
Click on the player’s name below to read his/her profile.
“Are you going to throw me a party?” is the exact question asked several times a week by Mt. Vernon Township High School (MVTHS) student-athlete, Preston Reich. He would ask his teacher this question to make sure she didn’t forget he was getting ready to embark on a new chapter of his life.
Preston has always attended MVTHS and participated in Special Olympics bowling, athletics (track and field), Unified Bass Fishing, and after doing basketball skills for a number of years, he played on the basketball team. When Preston completed his fourth year of high school, he shifted to another program provided by MVTHS called Readying Adults to Maximize Success, or the R.A.M.S. Program. It is designed to teach students how to live independently with a strong focus on vocational skills. While he has been part of the program, Preston has honed his vocational skills while working at locations on and off campus. Mrs. LeeAnn Schuette was his teacher and developed relationships with several local businesses for Preston and his classmates to generalize their skills into community settings. The DoubleTree by Hilton, Mt. Vernon Dream Homes, and others are some locations where Preston has worked on fine-tuning his skills. While giving a speech to the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce Executive Board about the R.A.M.S. Program, Preston revealed that his favorite part of working at the DoubleTree by Hilton was seeing General Manager, Mike Carbonaro every day … Mr. Carbonaro was in the audience for that speech!
This school year was bittersweet for Preston. This was his last year to attend MVTHS and his last year in the R.A.M.S. Program because he was turning 22 years old. When students receiving transitional programming turn 22 years old, they “age out” or exit the program. This can be daunting for some students or some families. Preston was ready! He works several days each week at Kingdom Seed Ministries, which is a non-profit organization that sells lunches three days a week to raise money for their various community ministries. All through the year, Preston knew what was coming around the corner in April 2020. He knew his time at MVTHS was coming to an end. Truthfully, he was the ONLY student at MVTHS who knew he would not be entering the hallowed halls for the rest of the school year. The abrupt end of in-person learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic took everyone by surprise. The one aspect that Preston was not prepared for was how his 22nd birthday party would be impacted. Would he still have a party?
When students exit the R.A.M.S. Program midyear due to aging out, Mrs. Schuette really pulls out all the stops to make the exiting student feel how special they are and know how much they will be missed. A HUGE 22nd birthday bash is held in the student’s honor. Preston participated in his classmate party last year. It was something he was looking forward to this entire year. March saw an Executive Order from Illinois Governor JB Pritzker for all Illinois residents to stay at home for at least 30 days. This meant Preston’s party, to be held on his birthday, April 17, could not be held, at least in the way it was originally intended.
Thankfully, Preston’s teacher is awfully incredible! She would never let a pandemic get in the way of Preston’s highly anticipated party. She just had to make sure he knew that Ram Nation would always love Preston and that he would always be part of the Ram Family! Mrs. Schuette began contacting Preston’s family, teachers, staff members, and the whole community about Preston’s upcoming birthday and the brand-new plan to throw him a 22nd birthday PARADE! At 12:30 pm on Friday, April 17, about 50 vehicles met in a nearby vacant parking lot and at 12:45 pm police sirens were sounded as the vehicles formed a line and began driving toward Preston’s home. This timing was important because it was the time of day Preston was born 22 years before. Living a few blocks from a major road, Preston thought the sirens were for a funeral procession. As the siren sound became louder and louder, he and his family exited their home and were greeted with a long procession of cars, decorated with streamers and balloons, honking while passengers were cheering and holding signs, and many carefully dropped gifts and cards for Preston.
Speaking of cards, Preston received so many cards in the days surrounding his birthday! He hardly ever receives mail, let alone so many cards! He even received a card from the state of Florida with Disney stickers. One letter came from Jackson Creel, a senior at MVTHS, who happens to share a birthday with Preston. He wrote that “all the cool people are born on April 17.” Jackson went on to write how much he missed seeing Preston in the hallways at school and telling him hello. Although they have never had classes together or hung out together after school, Jackson knows that birthdays are special, especially “their” birthday. Preston hung that special letter on his bedroom mirror. Guess who was hanging out the window of his mom’s SUV during Preston’s birthday parade … that’s right, Jackson!
Preston and his family were amazed at how the school and community showered him with love and birthday wishes. He recorded a thank you video that his mom posted on Facebook. Preston may not have received a celebration like he was expecting, but Preston’s parade was the perfect party proxy!