More Inspiring Stories Stories

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

Special Chronicles Exclusive: A Conversation with Zinyra


By Daniel Smrokowski, Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger, Special Olympics Illinois

The week of June 21-26, our Special Olympics Illinois (SOILL) community celebrates the second annual Virtual Summer Games. For the second year, our normal in-person competitions and events have either ceased or slowed to a few socially-distanced and mask-wearing events. SOILL has introduced esports, virtual sports and virtual programming to their lineup for people with and without intellectual disabilities.  On June 26, I hope you will join our SOILL community in the Virtual Celebration primetime event.  

Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with one of the three Athlete Board Members, Zinyra Ross. In a Special Chronicles Exclusive Conversation, we’ll give you a preview of her upcoming speech.

Zinyra was a little bit nervous about speaking at the Virtual Summer Games. “It took me like three videos to get the speech right,” said Zinyra.

In Zinyra’s upcoming speech, she will talk about the sports she plays and how that connects with going to Summer Games. The theme of connection speaks to a message Zinyra will share during her Virtual Summer Games 2021 speech. Zinyra noted how, “even though we [SOILL Athletes] have challenges in life, we always find a way to work around it,” said Zinyra. “We always found people who will support us no matter what and people who are willing to learn to support too.” 

Similar to how as Special Olympics athletes, we have found support to help in overcoming our personal obstacles, during this global pandemic Special Olympics Illinois found a way for all of us to stay connected. Zinyra talked about how virtual programming gave athletes the hope that we needed when it comes to staying connected in times of isolation. Special Olympics Illinois still found a way to support us.  It met some obstacles but they figured out a way to help us find connection. 

In the theme of connection, Zinyra and I both hope you will connect with our SOILL community during the 2021 Summer Games: Virtual Celebration. Watch it live on Saturday, June 26 at 6:30 PM CT on our Facebook page and Twitch channel — just search for @SpecialOlympicsIllinois or watch live on our website: To participate, just tune in at 6:30 PM CT. 

Check out Zinyra’s website to schedule her to speak at your event, buy her art creations, and learn more about her story at:   

Listen to Daniel’s previous Unified at Work podcast conversation with Z at and watch the Special Chronicles Exclusive Conversation Video:

Birds of a Feather: One Hour Changes 2020 for These Athletes, Families


Many around the world were presented a new challenge in 2020 – how to connect with friends during this difficult time. For this group of Special Olympics Illinois families, the solution was a weekly, virtual Happy Hour.

The Taylor family officially started Happy Hour Zoom calls on Friday, March 27, 2020, in the hopes of connecting with friends while staying safe during the pandemic. Included was a group of friends that have known each other for more than a decade.

For nearly 17 months, eight different SOILL families gathered each Friday with their favorite drinks and foods in hand. As the weeks passed, one of the attending athletes proposed creating themes for each call. From then on out, each call included costumes and signs. The friends celebrated birthdays, holidays, and other special occasions together as well. Eventually, the group even added in a “question of the day” in an effort to hear more about the group members’ daily lives.

For the families that participated, the virtual Happy Hour meetings were a blessing. It became something to look forward to – Fridays at 5:00 PM where they would share smiles and laughs with one another. Each family was impacted in many ways.

For the Meza family, these Zoom meetings were a gift. Nearly four years ago, Cindy and Liam Meza moved from Illinois to Arkansas. When COVID-19 hit, they were thrilled to be able to reconnect with all of their friends in Illinois who they had not seen in years. It was a great reminder of the friendships that Special Olympics Illinois helped them create.

Another family that was a part of each Happy Hour call was Lisa and her daughter, Emily. They always tried to be the first ones on the call to allow them to see all the boxes pop up on the screen with familiar, smiling faces, kind of like their own version of The Brady Bunch. Lisa loved how during this one hour time slot, all of their children were loved and accepted, and they could embrace their roles as the superstars they are!

As parents of young adults with Down syndrome during the pandemic, it was so important for the families to have this time to see their children feel connected with their peers. The hope is that Happy Hour will continue for years to come.

As we slowly see pandemic restrictions being lifted, Happy Hour attendance is dwindling. Bonnie Taylor offers that this is expected, as there will be plenty of opportunities to see each other soon.

Now, many are working hard to support the 2021 Chicago Ducky Derby, including Happy Hour participant, Mallory Taylor, who has been selected as this year’s Chicago Ducky Derby ambassador.

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 Mallory 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 under the Darling Ducklings team at

How This Special Olympics Illinois Athlete Builds Physical and Financial Wellness


SOILL and IL ABLE Partner On & Off Field to Help Families

When 21-year-old Special Olympics Illinois (SOILL) Global Messenger Michael Williams collaborated on an Autism Awareness Month video, he was filling pandemic time to build communications skills while waiting to return to in-person SOILL competition. “Michael is not as interested in the virtual activities, so he is looking forward to entering more Special Olympics events in-person,” said Dawn Williams, Michael’s mom and coach of several of Michael’s teams.

Dawn also coaches Michael to build and strengthen other life areas that he will need as an adult, including having an IL ABLE account. IL ABLE accounts are savings and investment accounts that Special Olympics Illinois athletes and their families can open to save for disability expenses while preserving benefits such as SSI and Medicaid. “Our plan is to let the funds in the IL ABLE account build over the years,” said Dawn.  “So, he will have money for any big purchases or for his later-in-life years when his support needs might change.”

Like Michael and Dawn, a year into the pandemic, many SOILL families have gotten creative to find ways off- the-field and off-the-court to keep building skills and independence in other life areas. That’s why IL ABLE and Special Olympics Illinois have teamed up and are proud to announce IL ABLE as the Official Families Network Partner, there to help the more than 23,100 Special Olympics Illinois athletes and their families as they build both physical wellbeing through SOILL sports and financial wellbeing through IL ABLE.

Many virtual and in-person awareness and learning activities are planned, including webinars and IL ABLE resource tables at the 2022 Winter and Summer Games. Plan to attend and learn more! You’ll find events information throughout the year here on and at

Meanwhile, Michael has returned to work part-time at the Hope Café in the Springfield area. “He is depositing his work checks directly into the IL ABLE account and he has the checking account option,” Dawn said. By putting his paychecks into his IL ABLE account instead of a regular checking account, Michael protects his SSI benefits. (Learn more here).

Michael is also building another life skill – learning how to drive! He has his driving permit and hopes to get his driver’s license after more practice on the road, according to Dawn. Expenses related to learning to drive are a good example of the types of expenses that a tax-free IL ABLE account can be used to pay for. (Learn more here).

That’s not all. Michael moved back home from a group residence during the pandemic and, with the support of parents and siblings, the transition went well. So well, in fact, that the family is planning for a future that might include supported living. “Now that I am back to work in-person teaching and his siblings are back to living their lives, Michael is still doing well living at home,” Dawn said. “We are very excited about his progress and his new venture in successfully learning to drive. These are all great steps in increasing his independence and building his future.”  (Did we mention that home and housing expenses are another area that could be covered with funds from an IL ABLE account?) 

As Michael, Dawn, and all of the SOILL families return to in-person SOILL events, IL ABLE will be cheering them on toward the finish line. 

Click here to follow in Michael’s footsteps and open your IL ABLE account.  

Virtual Sports Helps Athletes Stay in the Game


Keeping the competitive spirit alive during the pandemic was at the forefront of conversations amongst many, including Special Olympics Illinois athletes. Due to a remote atmosphere, a new virtual experience was born – Virtual Sports. This virtual program is comprised of monthly sports skills and challenges along with a featured fitness component, designed to help engage athletes, coaches, and families from across Illinois. 

Special Olympics Illinois athlete KC Coppel and his mother, Micki, made a point to stay active while at home. KC lives in a group home with his peers. During the pandemic, KC was not able to engage with others outside of his housemates. Therefore, Micki and KC made a plan and later enrolled in the January’s fitness challenge. This month-long challenge was an accumulation of jumping jacks, leading up to the total amount of 100.

“We FaceTime every day! Somedays, I would forget, and KC would politely remind me with a text or call,” explains Micki.

Participating in Virtual Sports was an opportunity for a mother and a son to stay connected during the pandemic, and most importantly, stay healthy.

“It helped me keep busy while in-person activities were not happening,” said Coppel.

KC Coppel competes with Northwest Special Recreation Association (NWSRA). Outside of competition, Coppel takes trips with his peers and teammates. He also learns social and life skills to be able to live independently.

“Special Olympics has afforded KC so many opportunities, many of those being outside of sports,” explains his mother, Micki.

The virtual programming Special Olympics Illinois provided throughout the pandemic came as no surprise to Micki.

“As a family, we moved around quite a bit through KC’s childhood. We were very thankful to find the Special Olympics Illinois program.”

Virtual Sports is also a part of the upcoming Virtual Summer Games this month, helping athletes be part of the Virtual Summer Games at home. The Virtual Summer Games Pentathlon lets athletes choose five events to complete, submitting their scores online. Events consist of all sports typically offered during Summer Games – but with a twist. To participate in the June offering, please visit

You will learn more about KC and the Special Olympics Illinois Virtual Sports program during the Summer Games: Virtual Celebration on Saturday, June 26 at 6:30 PM CT. This primetime event will be available to watch live on our Facebook pageTwitch channel, or via the Virtual Summer Games website.  To learn more about activities available throughout the week of Virtual Summer Games, view the schedule and the details on how to participate at