Health Stories

Mr. Corrigan Goes to Washington


By Kevin Corrigan, Special Olympics volunteer and student at Marist High School, Chicago

I recently traveled to Washington, D.C., with Special Olympics Illinois for Capitol Hill Day, the annual event when Special Olympics athletes, volunteers, and executives from across America travel to Washington to meet with their respective state Representatives and lobby for, as was the case this year, continued federal funding.

In our coalition was my father Jim Corrigan, SOILL’s past board chair, and me; Special Olympics Illinois Regional Director Linda Wunder; Kankakee School District special education teacher and coach Penny Sylvester; Unified Partner Kacie Lalumendier of Kankakee and Special Olympics athlete Courtney Illum of Kankakee. We met with nine Illinois legislators and discussed the continuation of the government’s funding toward education and the immersion of those with intellectual disabilities into the school system, as well as grants for medical services such as health screenings for individuals with intellectual disabilities.

People with intellectual disabilities are an often inadequately resourced demographic, contrary to common belief. Many athletes don’t receive proper healthcare due to a lack of physicians who can cope with the demands that an individual with disabilities requires. Individuals with intellectual disabilities are also nearly three times more likely to be bullied at school, and federal funding helps integrate students into schools at a young age, hopefully fostering a more inclusive environment that will reduce the amount of ostracized students.

On Wednesday, Feb. 10, hundreds of the Hill Day participants converged on the Capitol to meet with their Representatives. Our Illinois coalition had a particularly busy day with nine appointments scheduled with either Representatives or their staffers—unfortunately, for Illinois at least, we met with far more staffers than we did Congressmen due to the backlogged Congressional voting schedule that occurred after “Snowpocolypse.”

The meetings with the staffers tended to last 15 minutes. The six of us would sit down and one of us, usually Jim or Linda, would give a little background about Special Olympics, the success we have enjoyed, and emphasize the number of Illinois athletes – which exceeds 42,000 between traditional and Young Athletes and grows annually. Then we’d discuss our funding request and explain our reliance on federal money – due to the fact that Special Olympics is a not-for-profit organization. The Congressman or staffer would then generally ask a few question. My role in the group was that of a volunteer and I often fielded questions such as “Why did you join Special Olympics?” or “What is the role of a volunteer on a daily basis?” After our short talk, it was time for pictures outside with the Representatives’ name plaque, followed by a brisk walk through the annals of the Capitol in an attempt to reach the next meeting.

Our trip to D.C. was a major success, with Representatives and Senators from both parties and every state pledging their support, both personally and monetarily, for Special Olympics. Who knew bipartisanship was so easy?

In photo above are (L-R): Kevin Corrigan, Penny Sylvester, Courtney Illum, Kacie Lalumendier, Linda Wunder and Jim Corrigan

More than 1,600 Athletes Get Physicals at Chicago MedFest


On Oct. 22, the United Center played host to student athletes, coaches, healthcare professionals and volunteers throughout Chicago. They were all there for the 16th Annual Chicago MedFest.

2014ChicagoMedFest-AM3295Between 7 a.m.  and noon that day, more than 1,600 current and aspiring Special Olympics Illinois athletes, drawn from Chicago Public Schools and other partnering agencies, received free sports physicals from Advocate Medical Group professionals. Medical clearance is required by Special Olympics to guarantee athlete safety, and receiving this physical exam clears athletes to participate in the program for two years.

Simply put, MedFest provides an easy, free and accessible point of entry for nearly half of the Special Olympics athletes in Chicago. View photos from MedFest.

MedFest is just one part of our total Healthy Athletes offerings. In addition to the sports physicals, 158 athletes had their vision evaluated through the Special Olympics Opening Eyes program. The Illinois College of Optometry staff offered vision screenings to these students and provided free onsite glasses if needed. Of the 158 students who had their vision tested, 20 percent of them were there for the free eye exam alone. This number is increasing as more athletes learn about the availability of this and other Healthy Athletes programs.

Athletes of all ages, ranging from early education to high school and older, were in attendance. For the third year in a row, we saw an increase in the number of Young Athletes who received a screening. This step is crucial to the success of their eventual transition into the traditional Special Olympics program when they become age-eligible.

Those waiting for their physical had a front row seat to watch the Chicago Blackhawks practice. Players and coaches tossed pucks to several lucky athletes.

2014ChicagoMedFest-AM3318After they completed their physicals, these athletes were treated to a delicious boxed lunch, provided free of charge by Levy Restaurants. Special Olympics Illinois coordinated and covered the cost of transporting athletes to the United Center and returning them to their respective schools and agencies.

MedFest was created in an effort to involve more children and adults into the program as many athletes – for one reason or another – are not able to obtain this sports physical on their own. Healthy initiatives like these speak to the broader scope of the Special Olympics Illinois’ mission and to the many ways the organization positively influences the lives of its participants.

Thank you to Advocate Medical Group, United Center and Levy Restaurants for their in-kind support of this event. Furthermore, MedFest is made possible through grant and volunteer support from BlueCross BlueShield of Illinois, BlueCross BlueShield Association, GE and Mattel, with additional grant support from the Stack Family Foundation. Without these partners, none of this would be possible.

Skilled Medical Volunteers Vital to Safe Competition


They are the Special Olympics volunteers at every competition that you may not even see and they’re fine with that because it means you haven’t needed them. They are the medical volunteers.

Whether their services are used or not, skilled medical volunteers are vital to ensuring the safety of our athletes at every Special Olympics event.

Greg Eberle, Chairman of the Medical Committee for State Basketball Tournament and Summer Games, said medical volunteers are “more than a glorified First Aid station.” Many of medical volunteers at state-level events are athletic trainers (like Eberle), nurses or EMTs who are trained to identify certain conditions that need further aid like muscle strains and sprains, seizures and blood sugar issues.

Most of the issues that medical volunteers handle are minor

Most of the issues that medical volunteers handle are minor

“We are there as support staff to parents and coaches who know their athletes,” Eberle said. “We can help control the situation and ensure that no improper decisions are made,” adding that quick identification of the medical situation, treatment and follow-up for injuries of all athletes allow them to experience minimal downtime in competition.

“Fortunately, serious injuries are not common but a skilled medical volunteer makes all the difference in the world when an athlete needs assistance for both the minor and more serious types of injuries,” said Tracy Hilliard, Vice President of Sports, Training & Competition. “It is reassuring to athletes and their coach or parents to know that trained medical volunteers are there when most needed.”

While Special Olympics provides medical coverage at all events, Eberle would like to see more in the medical profession become involved with Special Olympics. “Many medical personnel have misconceptions of what it means to volunteer at Special Olympics events,” he said.

Education is key to getting qualified volunteers, Eberle continued. “We need to take a proactive approach to attracting medical volunteers, reaching out to them face-to-face and tell them ‘this is what’s involved.’”

Time commitments also are an issue, he concedes. To counter the misconception that volunteering would be a day-long commitment, Eberle has worked to break volunteer shifts into 3-hour segments. “Give us 3 hours of your time – that’s all we’re asking for. If you want to stay longer, bonus for us!”

Skilled medical volunteers are able to handle major medical situations

Skilled medical volunteers are able to handle major medical situations

One medical group that has made a commitment to covering Special Olympics events is Athletico Physical Therapy in the Chicago area. Amy Kaylor, Manager of Sports & Competition for Far West Suburban/Area 2, said the Area began working with Athletico about four years ago after coach Joy Pierson mentioned the firm provided athletic trainers at her high school.

Since then, Athletico has become an Area partner for both Area 2 and North Suburban Cook/Area 18. “They provide a lot of extras,” said Kaylor, including providing their own medical bags and equipment. In exchange, the Areas recognize Athletico in printed materials, display the company’s sponsor banner at events and include information about Athletico in spoken comments during events.

“Athletico is proud of our partnership with the Special Olympics,” said Susan Rowe, Manager of Athletic Training Services at Athletico. “It allows our athletic trainers to participate in a rewarding experience. We have enjoyed the opportunity to strengthen our relationship with administration, coaches, parents and most importantly participants.”

“Medical personnel are some of the most important event volunteers that we need,” said Hilliard. “Our goal is to have skilled medical personnel at every competition but sometimes this is difficult to do, so we hope that by sharing more information about actual time commitments and the variety of events throughout the year that we are successful in recruiting more volunteers.”

If you are interested in volunteering as medical personnel, please contact Greg Eberle.

By Michele Evans, Director of Communications

Illinois Opening Eyes Volunteer Wins Optometry Award


Dr. Sandra S. Block, a major presence at Special Olympics Illinois’ Opening Eyes events, recently received one of the American Academy of Optometry’s highest honors – the Carel C. Koch Memorial Medal Award. The award is presented to a person who has made outstanding contributions to the enhancement and development of relationships between optometry and other professions. 

HA_Banners_Healthy_Athletes_HorizontalDr. Block is a faculty member at the Illinois College of Optometry – serving as a professor and Medical Director of school-based Vision Clinics for the Chicago Public Schools. She is a Global Clinical Advisor to the Special Olympics Lions Clubs International Opening Eyes program. She has been involved in every Special Olympics Summer and Winter World Games – a total of 10 – since the 1995 Games at Yale University. She has been involved in planning the Healthy Athletes Opening Eyes activities for the 2015 World Games in Los Angeles.

The overall purpose of the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes program is to educate families about prevention and the importance of health care as well as educating health care providers about how to treat people with disabilities, with the hope that they would open their doors and provide service to people with intellectual disabilities.

She wants to share her passion about the importance of eye care for persons with intellectual disability and other disabilities, engage more health care providers to provide high quality health care, and to educate athletes and their families about the need for them to seek eye care service for both prevention and treatment of eye problems.

Dr. Block has worked with health professionals from the other Special Olympics Healthy Athletes disciplines including Special Smiles, Healthy Hearing, Fit Feet, FUNfitness, Health Education and in planning MedFest events around the world.

At Illinois Opening Eyes events, Dr. Block assists the Illinois Directors Dr. Christine Allison and Dr. Melissa Sigler.

David Evangelista, Special Olympics’ vice president of global development and government relations, congratulated Dr. Block on the prestigious award:  “Thank you, Sandy, for all you do to make quality vision care a reality for the global population of individuals with intellectual disabilities.”

When Smiles Count More than Words


Volunteer Mary Manley visited the 15th annual MedFest at United Center in Chicago to hear from doctors and athletes about why this event is so important to each of them.

By Mary Manley, Special Olympics Illinois volunteer

It is worth celebrating that this is the 15th year Chicago MedFest has been making the seemingly impossible happen.   Hundreds of volunteers from Advocate Medical Group, Illinois College of Optometry, Lions Clubs International, United Center and GE joined forces with Special Olympics Illinois on November 13, 2013.  Over the course of only five hours, 1,434 aspiring and current athletes received physical exams necessary for their participation in Special Olympics.  Many hundreds also had vision screenings and received free glasses if needed.  The reason for this annual event is to insure that every one who wants to participate in Special Olympics can.



United Center

A Simple Beginning

“It’s nice.”

Smiling MedFest AthleteNot exactly a dramatic beginning.  But like many things on this day, what is said only in words or numbers leaves out the best part of the story.  Like the huge enthusiastic grins that went with this athlete’s answer to “How is MedFest?” and “What do you think of Special Olympics?”  Only when those grins are added in do you begin to capture the excitement of the day.  It is visible in the faces of just about every one at MedFest.

Of course MedFest has had its dramatic moments.   For example some years back at MedFest a doctor caught a life-threatening heart condition that literally saved a child’s life.  But again, there is something worth celebrating in the relative absence of this kind of story today.  As one doctor who has been coming virtually every year since MedFest’s beginning said, “I got regulars now.”   The rarity of drama is a testament to the benefits of consistent exposure to quality health care.  And MedFest provides that.

Thanks to the United Center

In that same vein, everyone can appreciate the generosity of United Center. It has opened its doors and staff to MedFest for the 15th year in a row now.  But the United Center brings more than lots of free space to the party.  It brings the World Champion Chicago Blackhawks out to practice on the ice.  Can you imagine the excitement of getting to watch the Blackhawks practice live while you wait to see a doctor?  Now factor in the occasions when an athlete received a signed hockey stick or a doctor got a puck.   The personal connections made may be remembered even longer than all the excitement.

Advocate Medical Group and ICO

Hundreds of volunteer health care professionals from Advocate Medical Group and the Illinois College of Optometry volunteer their time for MedFest.  Their participation has a huge in-kind value. But what you don’t see in the numbers is the continuous welcoming smiles, enthusiastic high fives and countless stickers they share with the athletes.  Advocate Staff at MedFest 2Their comments reflect their genuine affection for the athletes.  One doctor who has a long history with MedFest said, “I look forward to it every year.  It’s great because the kids look forward to coming and the doctors do too. They (the athletes) deserve the best of life that can be given.”  A physician’s assistant who was volunteering for her third year said, “It’s been a lot of fun.  It’s a great event where we do these sports physicals so they can be active in activities they want to do. When you’re here (you) just keep a smile on your face and make sure that the person you are seeing is having a good time…make sure it’s a good experience for them.”  Another physician, who has actually never missed a year since MedFest started, simply said, “I love it!”

Of course everyone understands the benefits of MedFest for the athletes.  Equally important is the training and experience MedFest brings to the medical staff.  One physician remarked that he had never treated such a large volume of patients with these athletes particular needs before Medfest.  Obviously, his and everyone else’s experience at MedFest significantly enriches their abilities to work with similar people in their day-to-day practice.  But there are other more subtle lessons that the health care professionals learn from their interactions with these athletes.  One physician volunteered that the experience has made her grateful for what she has.  And a physician’s assistant had this to share:   “It helps you to remember that you have to treat everybody as someone special…as an individual… and give attention to them.”

It’s All About the Personal Stories

Opening Eyes ScreeningOne of the coaches shared a story about Samantha, one of her athletes.   The story illustrates something else the athletes have to teach us.  It also explains why, if you tell Samantha that you hear she is a runner, she will give you a smile that will stay with you for the rest of the day.

When Samantha first started training for Special Olympics, walking the few blocks between her school and the park was daunting.  In fact, she had to sit down and rest to do it.  So, when Samantha was ready to run a 50-meter race at a Special Olympics event, she was rightfully proud.  But luck was not on Samantha’s side.  Through one of those cosmic mix-ups, Samantha ended up in the wrong place – at the site for the 100-meter race.  Samantha had never run a 100-meter race in her life.  To make matters worse, the race was already finished.  But the referees could see that Samantha really wanted to run.  They explained that she could not win anything officially.  However, if she still wanted to run it was OK with them.  Samantha was psyched.  She ran the track.  Her first 100-meter race ever and it was without the benefit of competitors to either help pace or motivate.

In the meantime, her coach was not aware of history being made across the field.  All she knew was that she wanted Samantha to have a chance to shine in the 50 meter.

Volunteer Excited at MedFestSo she negotiated for Samantha’s 50-meter heat to be moved to a later slot.  That gave her time to locate Samantha.  The field between the two races loomed larger than usual to Samantha after her 100-meter adventure.  Still Samantha did not give up.  She arrived just in time for the rescheduled race.   Of course, Samantha was no longer on an even playing field with her competitors.  But she ran anyway – because Samantha has the spirit of a champion.

“Always be Great”

Dr. Rayner, a physician who has participated at MedFest for 14 of its 15 years, seems to look at life a similar way.  When asked what he would like to say to the athletes he said,  “Know that you are loved…  I encourage you to be the best that you can…  I say, don’t be good – always be great!”

That is the spirit Samantha and so many of these athletes have.  And, perhaps because of their example, it shows up in the people around them surprisingly often as well.  It makes one wonder if SO should have a duel meaning – Special Olympics and Spirit Olympics.

It seems appropriate to end with a quote from a 15-year old athlete.  When asked what she would like to say to the doctors (and all the organizations and many volunteers) at MedFest, Robin became very thoughtful.  She took the offer seriously.  Suddenly her face broke into a smile and she spoke from her heart.

“Thank you.”

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