Region A Stories Stories

#PLUNGEWITH Ruth Guenzler


Ruth Guenzler, Mother of Special Olympics Illinois Athlete Erika Guenzler plunges into freezing cold water to support the program. Ruth has been participating in the Law Enforcement Torch Run Polar Plunge for 10 years. She has specifically plunged at the Olson Lake Plunge in Loves Park. Ruth has plunged in 20-degree weather with snow on the ground and in 60-degree weather, where the sun is shining. For Ruth, the hardest part of the whole plunge is waiting to jump in.

Year to year Ruth spices it up with different costumes. From Cruella de Vil to a tie-dye morph suite, her ideas are never short of imaginative. Her key to a perfect costume is, “think warm, wigs help!” Every year Ruth’s friends, family, and daughter Erika support Ruth by cheering her on while she plunges. They are ready and waiting with warm towels for her when she coming running out of the water. “Even though you are so freezing you cannot feel your limbs, there is something so invigorating about plunging. The atmosphere and the people make the experience that much better,” said Ruth.

Year to year, Ruth’s has consistently met and exceeded her $1,000 fundraising goal!  As a mom of an Athlete, Ruth feels empowered by the generosity of those who support her in her plunge. “I am overwhelmed with joy by the generosity of others.”

Taking the Plunge to benefit Special Olympics Illinois is just one of the many ways Ruth supports her daughter Erika. Ruth’s advice to future plungers: “Go with a group, make a day out of it, and have fun!”

About the LETR Polar Plunge: This is the 19th year of the LETR Polar Plunge. In 19 years, more than 66,000 plungers have raised more than $18.4 million. GEICO, RIU Hotels & Resorts, and Apple Vacations are proud to be the Statewide Presenting Polar Plunge Sponsors.
Join the conversation and share who you will #PlungeWith on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.
For more information or to register for a plunge visit:

A Coach’s Perspective on Special Olympics


2017 Maggiano’s Hero Award Recipients


On November 27, 2017, Special Olympics Illinois supporters gathered at Maggiano’s in Schaumburg for an evening to celebrate the Honorees of the 2017 Maggiano’s Hero Award. This award is given to a person, family, group or business which has demonstrated an exemplary commitment to Special Olympics Illinois.  It serves as a way to recognize efforts that strengthen communities and improve the quality of life for Special Olympics athletes.

The 2017 Award Winners:

Maureen Lucenti

For the past 18 years, the Homewood office of Special Olympics has been very fortunate to hold an annual event called the Construction Team Picnic. This is a free event for Special Olympics athletes where they enjoy friends, play awesome games, watch companion dogs perform, dance and of course enjoy a delicious picnic meal.  Several hundred Special Olympics athletes and their families attend the picnic held annually at the Allstate Corporate headquarters in Northbrook. Maureen Lucenti has been the person behind the curtain that makes this all possible. Maureen obtains contributions from local contractors that pays for everything from food to t-shirts. An event this size requires lots of volunteer help and Maureen makes this happen also.  Maureen recruits as many as100 volunteers each year to assure that everyone has a great time. The Construction Team Picnic might not happen if not for Maureen’s dedication and love for the children and adults who attend each year.

Karen MichalskiZurich North America

Zurich North America is a Swiss insurance carrier with over 140 years serving businesses worldwide, including 100 years in the United States. They have continually proven their commitment to delivering reliable and comprehensive insurance solutions to all of their customers. All of their passion goes into helping understand, manage and minimize risks.

But Zurich does much more than offer and manage great insurance. Zurich employees have been giving back to the communities where they live and work since they started doing business in the United States in 1912. They strive to connect employee passions and meet real community needs.  Through their volunteer program, Zurich insurance has been a supporter of Special Olympics for many years!

Zurich employees are a huge help at Special Olympics competitions including basketball and golf.  They also provide tremendous office assistance with spring games preparations at both the Chicago and Lincolnshire offices of Special Olympics helping to stuff coach’s packets and assembling thousands of nametags and athlete wristbands. The Zurich employees are always responsible, dependable, personable and efficient. But Zurich North America does more than volunteer.  Special Olympics Illinois has received more than $50,000 from the Zurich grant program over the last seven years.  Their financial support and employee volunteerism have benefitted over 5,000 Special Olympics athletes!

Rich Howe – Photographer 

It’s been said that photography is an art of observation. It has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them. Many of you may know him as the ‘man behind the camera’, but his real name is Rich Howe! If you haven’t met him yet you don’t have to look far to find him! Rich has been a volunteer photographer with Special Olympics Illinois for over five years. His goal? To photograph every Special Olympics Illinois sport and capture the essence of Special Olympics athletes in his work. Rich volunteers at more than a dozen competitions and fundraising events each year – this comes down to about 156 volunteer hours or four weeks of work.  And remember, Rich is a volunteer. This is quite a commitment for someone with a family including grandchildren.  Rich has volunteered at Polar Plunge, Winter Games, First Look for Charity, Skating Championships, State Basketball, Aquatics meets, Spring Games, Summer Games, the Windy City Rubber Duck Derby, Plane Pull, Outdoor Sports Festival, the Inspire Greatness Gala, Fall Games, Floor Hockey, and State Bowling, just to name a few.  Even in below zero temperatures on Chestnut Mountain at Winter Games in Galena, Rich always has a smile on his face.

Mike McGowan – Ideal Lease

Idea Lease is a premier commercial truck lease and rental company and a leader in the transportation industry, with more than 430 locations in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Idealease has been a key sponsor for the Truck Convoy benefiting Special Olympics Illinois for the last nine years.

The Truck Convoy is a national Special Olympics fundraising event that celebrates the trucking industry. It is hosted by Law Enforcement Torch Run and began in Illinois in 2005. After five years with a slow climb in truck participation, the Truck Convoy had not quite grown to the potential that was hoped. In 2009, Idealease Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Keric Kennedy, saw the benefit of partnering with Special Olympics Illinois and the Truck Convoy. It was then that Idealease came on board as a presenting sponsor for the Special Olympics Illinois Tinley Park Truck Convoy.

Suddenly, other companies in the Chicagoland area were registering trucks, spreading the word about the excitement, community participation, and fundraising component of the Truck Convoy. Since then, Keric and Idealease have been a leader in promoting the opportunity to participate in the Truck Convoy among other truck and transportation companies in the industry. But there is more.  In 2015, the Hoffman Estates and Buffalo Grove Police Departments started a second Truck Convoy event, held at the Sears Centre. Idealease signed on immediately to be a Guardian Sponsor for both Truck Convoy events, which allowed the Law Enforcement Torch Run the opportunity to reach more truck and transportation companies and cross-promote the sponsorship.  In 2017, both Tinley Park and Sears Centre Truck Convoys are reaching hundreds of truckers! It’s not likely that either Truck Convoy would have the success that it enjoys without the longtime commitment and generosity of Keric Kennedy and Idealease.

Ginny Luptak and Craig Alm – Lambs Farm

Lambs Farm is a place that provides all of the essential ingredients for people with developmental disabilities to grow: a safe, caring, living environment; an extended family of peers with shared values and mutual respect; opportunities to have productive employment and contribute to the community while being as self-sufficient as possible. What began as a small pet shop in 1961 employing 12 individuals with intellectual disabilities, has now blossomed into a 70-acre farm making a difference in the lives of nearly 250 participants and thousands of visitors each year. You have probably seen Lambs Farm as you travel on I-94 near Libertyville.

Lambs Farm has been active with the Special Olympics Illinois Area 13 office for years. Lambs Farm is one of the largest participating agencies in northwest Illinois and competes in Basketball, Snowshoe, Swimming, Bocce, Track and Field, Softball, Golf, Bowling, and Floor Hockey. Lambs Farm hosts the Area Snowshoe event each year in January providing the facility space, equipment, and support to make the event a huge success. Recently they began hosting a Motor Activity Training Program event for those athletes who have phased out of the traditional sporting events. The Director of their Special Olympics program, Ginny Luptak, and Wellness Manager, Craig Alm, along with the recreational Lambs Farm staff always go above and beyond at events to assure that everyone is having a quality experience. Lambs Farm – their staff, administration, and athletes – is a tremendous partner.

Devin Marina and Caitlin Hillsman

The definition of the dynamic duo is simply a powerful pair of people. When the Chicago office of Special Olympics thinks dynamic duo, they think of Devin Marino and Caitlin Hillsman. While other couples might be unsure about what to make for dinner J, these two have provided unwavering support as members of Chicago’s Event Management Committee. Since 2012, Devin and Caitlin have been a strong, positive presence at Chicago competitions throughout the year.  Duties include equipment set-up, scoring, agency check-in, volunteer supervision, lunch supervision and awards distribution. Their keen attention to detail has improved the scope of how competitions run in Chicago and surrounding suburbs. And their selfless nature has influenced others around them to support Special Olympics as volunteers. Devin and Caitlin live in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood and both have busy careers.   Caitlin works for Fifth/Third Bank and Devin is a paraprofessional for students with special needs while working on his Master’s Degree in Special Education. They are both Iowa Alum and huge Hawkeye fans! Special Olympics competitions and fundraising events can’t succeed without the involvement of volunteers.  Devin and Caitlin are outstanding examples of volunteers whose passion, hard work and big hearts impact thousands of children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

David Taranda and Sherry Chambers – Allstate Insurance

The Allstate Corporation is the largest publicly held personal lines property and casualty insurer in America, serving more than 16 million households nationwide. Founded in 1931, Allstate has been dedicated to protecting their customers from life’s uncertainties and preparing them for the future for more than 85 years. Allstate is a great supporter of Special Olympics and has been involved in many different ways. They are active, dependable volunteers at sports competitions and fundraising events throughout the year.  Allstate has invited Special Olympics to speak at events to advocate for children and adults with disabilities. Many Allstate employees volunteer at the Special Olympics Illinois Young Professional Board helping to raise money for Special Olympics Illinois. Allstate shares employees who volunteer at competitions including basketball, gymnastics, track and field and softball.

Their helping hand’s program allows employees of Allstate to designate a charity that they would like to see their company invest in and that they feel passionate about.  Special Olympics Illinois has received several thousands of dollars through this grant program.On top of all of the great things, Allstate and their employees do for Special Olympics, they continue their commitment to providing volunteers needed at the   Palatine Polar Plunge every year in February!

Jose Gavina and Miguel Rodriguez

Prospect High School, one of the top-achieving schools in the state, serves the villages of Mt. Prospect and Arlington Heights.  96% of Prospect graduates attend a post-secondary institution.  In addition to providing a first-rate academic experience, Prospect High School is also home to one of the most accomplished and reputable co-curricular programs in the Midwest.  We are pleased to have their Superintendent Donald Angelaccio with us this evening.

Jose and Miguel work for Prospect High School where Special Olympics Area 18 hosts its annual Spring Games.  It is fair to say that Jose and Miguel have a busy workload overseeing a large high school.  However, every year, Jose and Miguel work for days ensuring that every detail is perfect at the school for the Special Olympics Spring Games. The Area 18 Spring Games welcomes more than 500 Special Olympics athletes to this full-day track and field competition.  Clearly, an event this large requires a great deal of planning, set-up and teardown and Jose and Miguel get it done each year. The day of the spring games event, Jose, and Miguel arrive before the sun rises working with staff and students to make sure tables, chairs, equipment, supplies, signage, and water jugs are in place.  They work with other staff at Prospect High School to assure that everything that is needed is in fact where it is supposed to be.

Alex Gara – American Bocce Company

American Bocce Company began volunteering with Special Olympics Illinois in 2014 when they were still the Wicker Park Bocce Club. They grew over the years and became American Bocce Co., but they didn’t forget the little guys. Who could possibly do a better job at sharing their love of bocce with Special Olympics athletes and volunteers than the American Bocce Company?  These young people have volunteered as court supervisors in both the Chicago and suburban Cook County programs of Special Olympics district bocce competitions for years. Rain or shine, they share their time and obvious love of the game.   American Bocce Company works hard to recruit volunteers and court supervisors to assure that the competitions are run efficiently and successfully.  Not only do these volunteers help at Illinois area events, they have also volunteered at the Special Olympics Illinois State Summer Games in Normal.

American Bocce Co.’s founder Alex Gara has even traveled to Los Angeles, California to volunteer his time at the Special Olympics World Games.  In addition to being involved with Special Olympics Illinois, they provide training as well as bocce courts to many other state and international Special Olympics programs. Special Olympics appreciates their continued support, their very generous contribution of time and knowledge and their inspirational devotion to the athletes who participate in Special Olympics.

Chris and Mike Sroka

Chris and Mike Sroka have been involved in Special Olympics for more years than they can count.  They helped to build not only one but two elementary school Special Olympics teams from the ground up. Chris and Mike have coached many sports, everything from basketball to bowling to snowshoeing.  They worked tirelessly to obtain free physicals for athletes – a requirement for participation.  They have volunteered at literally dozens of events, served on Event Management Teams and Fundraising Committees. They have even coordinated fundraisers within their family!

Chris and Mike are tireless supporters of the Special Olympics Illinois Young Athletes Program, which works with children between the ages of two and seven, and both are active inclusion advocates.  Chris is a champion for the Unified Schools Program and is the Chair of the Educator Leaders Network. Their passion, dedication, and commitment to Special Olympics shines through at local, regional, and statewide programs with their focus always on the athletes

Joe Waldau 

Once and awhile, Special Olympics Illinois has the good fortune to connect with an individual or business that is looking to make a difference and make it locally.   Ten years ago, Joe Waldau and his company, Sternberg Lighting located in Roselle, found their way to Special Olympics Illinois.  Ten years and ten Spring Games later Sternberg Lightning continues their generous, annual sponsorship which is approaching $80,000.  Of course, it is not only the invaluable financial support which is so important to Special Olympics.  Through his volunteer participation, Joe has become an invaluable member of the Track 1 Bullpen family.

Every spring Joe gets to see exactly how the Sternberg donation helps athletes and families in the area. And the volunteer crew has been together for 10 years. Chris, Ken, Pam Nelson and Joe under the leadership of 30-year volunteers Pat Schey and Larry Matchen- also here tonight – have fun while making sure every athlete makes it to their race. Amidst the chaos, questions, foul balls, wrong bullpens,  unhappy coaches and bad weather- something keeps them coming back for more! To the great crew of bullpen 1 – many thanks for keeping that finely tuned machine running. And to Joe Waldau and Sternberg Lighting- for all that you have done to ensure that Special Olympics athletes get the best possible Spring Games experience….. thank you!

CBS Radio

Entercom Chicago, formerly CBS Radio, has been a supporter of the Special Olympics Illinois Dunkin’ Donuts – Law Enforcement Torch Run – Cop on a Top fundraiser that takes place in May throughout the entire state of Illinois. Entercom Chicago supported many of the Chicagoland locations by having radio stations B96, US99, The Score and WXRT FM at Dunkin’ Donuts live on the air to help raise money for Special Olympics Illinois.

In 2017, Entercom Chicago radio station B96 stepped up again supporting the Special Olympics Illinois Coaster Challenge at Six Flags Great America. Looking to the future, Special Olympics Illinois has been in discussions with Entercom Chicago about having all six of their stations support the Special Olympics 50th Anniversary this July, from promoting the star-studded concert to the Unified Soccer Cup, Law Enforcement Torch Run, Eternal Flame and Global Day of Inclusion. Entercom Chicago’s core purpose is to entertain and inform their local community with relevant, compelling content through diverse platforms and to provide impactful solutions for their partners.   Each of Entercom Chicago’s six preeminent radio brands is Community Focused – Community Proud and dedicated to supporting organizations who do good work where listeners live, work and play.

The Sport That Never Stops Running


“Believe And You Will Achieve,” is a motto that many Special Olympics Illinois Athletes and Coaches model their sports-competition training around. Special Olympics Illinois Athletes put their dedication and training to show, as many competed, in Equestrian at the 2017 Fall Games on October 28 and 29. This year, 138 Athletes competed in equestrian, making it one of the fastest-growing Special Olympics sports in Illinois.

Bravehearts Therapeutic Riding

Bravehearts Therapeutic Riding, an equestrian riding center based in Harvard and Poplar Grove, Illinois, are seasoned pros when it comes to hosting the equestrian portion of Fall Games. This year was their fifth year hosting the event at their riding center and their eighth year participating in the Special Olympics Illinois Fall Games. Megan Hill-McQueeney, President/COO and Master Level PATH Certified Instructor of Bravehearts Riding have been in the therapeutic riding field for 25 years.

“I look forward to hosting this event every year! Bravehearts works tirelessly all year round to make sure this event is safe, comfortable, and especially memorable for the athletes of Special Olympics Illinois. “

The Bravehearts Therapeutic Riding team had thirty-four athletes qualify for the Fall Games tournament.

“As an instructor, I enjoy watching the growth and independence of the athletes, from year to year!”

Horsefeathers Therapeutic Riding

Photo of Jacob Riedler at Equestrian

Another veteran of Fall Games is Horsefeathers Therapeutic Riding, which is based in Lake Forest Illinois. The Horsefeathers program was formed in 2008 and has grown ever since. They began participating in Special Olympics Illinois equestrian events in 2009. To date, there are 20 athletes in their program and are continually growing.

Jyll Knautz, Special Olympics therapeutic riding coach, sent her very first student to Fall Games this year. Jacob Riedler was ecstatic when he qualified for Fall Games. Jacob began his journey with Horsefeathers as an assisted rider, and in the last few years, he has progressed immensely to an independent rider.

“Seeing Jacob’s excitement and joy when he progressed to an independent rider left me speechless. His smile was ear to ear!”

This accomplishment is monumental for Jacob. He began riding when he was young and continued persevering and conquering his goals along the way. At Fall Games, Jacob placed first in Horseback and third in showmanship.

Bravehearts and Horsefeathers continue to be trailblazers for our hundreds of Special Olympics athletes from across the state in the sport of equestrian who announce “Let me Win, but if Cannot, Let Me Be Brave in the Attempt” in their pursuit of reaching their goals at Fall Games.


My Light at the End of the Tunnel


Hello my name is Crystal Catherine Davis I am 24 years old and I have Autism Spectrum Disorder. I also have sensory issues and social problems. When I was in high school I tried everything to fit in with the other kids I joined clubs and sports in hopes I would fit in. Unfortunately, nothing I did stopped the teasing and hazing. As I got older the teasing continued until it became unbearable. I couldn’t even place an order at a restaurant and made things worse when I tried.

I joined the Belvidere NASR Pirates Volleyball team this year it was my first Special Olympics sport. There I met more people like me. I remember the first time I served, I messed up really bad and I ran off the court crying. The parents and some of my teammates came to comfort me. They made sure to make me feel welcomed and accepted. I had never felt that before. Soon I started being able to make friends and was even be able to order my own food. Special Olympics has been my light in a dark tunnel I thought I’d never get out of. I am proud to say I am a Special Olympic athlete and I will be playing Basketball next month! Because of Special Olympics, I learned social skills how to make friends but most importantly I learned pride in myself and I learned I am perfect just the way I am. I am Autistic and proud. Thank you Illinois Special Olympics for having these organizations for us!