Region C Stories Stories

Lives Transformed: Special Olympics Illinois and Family, Changed Together and Forever


 

“Once you go once, there is no escaping it. You can’t help but get hooked” says Meggan Rogers talking about her experience with the Special Olympics Illinois. To her and her mother Linda Hagemann, the Special Olympics community is like a second family to them.

Meggan’s mother, Linda, is a police liaison at the Kane County State’s Attorney Office. She has worked at that office for more than 40 years. With her position, she has gained very close friendships with the officers and police departments in the area. One day, a good friend, Police Chief of East Dundee PD and State Director for Illinois Law Enforcement Torch Run, Joe Pena asked her to attend a weekend at this event called the “Special Olympics Illinois Summer Games”. She was hesitant, as she had three young daughters, Meggan, Nicole, and Sara to take care of. But, she took the opportunity, and of course, her and extremely supportive husband with everything Special Olympics Illinois, Scott, headed to Bloomington/Normal. “Just one weekend”, Linda quoted. “Well as you know, just one time turns into a lifetime”. This “one time” was in 1998, 22 years ago.

Now for Meggan, she was only at the age of four when she attended this first summer games event. From this moment, by the time she was eight, she was wanting to be a special education teacher. She, along with her sisters, became so attached to the Special Olympics, that they gave up going on a trip to Disney World, as the dates of the Summer Games would overlap their time at Disney. Meggan quoted her saying when she was younger: “No mom, we’re not going to Disney because our friends will miss us, they will be looking for us”, their friends being the Special Olympics Illinois athletes that they had become so close to.

With Meggan’s love and constant involvement with the Special Olympics community, and of course wanting to be a Special Education teacher since she was eight years old, she went on to be a Special Education teacher at Mill Creek Elementary School in Geneva. She personally works with five intellectually disabled children, or as she calls them, “kiddos”, in a self-contained room, mainly where the kids spend 70-80% of the school day. What this is, is a room, just like a classroom, where these kiddos are taught more life-based information and instruction. Now for the other 20-30% of the school day, the students spend their time with other children in the school, whether that be at recess, lunch, or other school gatherings. “I look at it now (being involved with the Special Olympics) as a teacher, I wish more parents and more families would teach that acceptance and provide those opportunities to kids, just to make the world a better place”.

For Linda, she could not be more proud of her daughter Meggan and the direction she has gone with helping intellectually disabled children. She herself stays involved with Special Olympics Illinois to this day:

“Those were some amazing family times. Watching the girls grow up with the love they have for the athletes, the excitement, looking for certain athletes they had bonded with, had started a relationship with. As parents, Scott and I were so proud of them, and I think they grew up accepting everybody…they grew up around these athletes that they were just like them. The athletes were just like them”.

She, along with her family, wants people to understand that someone who is intellectually disabled is no different than us. They can do the same, if not more, than many of us! They are able to touch our hearts and change the lives of many, just as they did for Linda and Meggan.


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.


What Special Olympics Means to our Family


 

By Cate Hunter

Special Olympics to me means a community, support system, and development path for all individuals, regardless of ability.  

From an early age my twin sister Georgia has been able to compete with Special Olympics.  Our older sister and I were both very active in sports, and though we tried to have Georgia on our teams, it was hard for her to feel competitive and really connect with other players.  Once she got involved with Special Olympics, and swimming in particular, you could immediately see her self-confidence grow.  Not only was she earning gold medals, and ribbons, but she was able to thrive in a sport that “ran in the family” and she is so proud to do it.  Every single competition, or meet, or game, you can see that other athletes, and their families, feel the same way.  Our family can take great comfort in knowing that the Special Olympics community is there for Georgia, as much as she is there for them.  Additionally, all of the friends that she has made over the years across different “areas” means that she has a support system that will cheer her on at events, and will be friendly faces when she travels with just her team to events.  The support system and community have enabled her to become an independent participant in her own life, and for that I am forever grateful.

As far as development opportunities, I am very fortunate to participate on the Young Professionals Board of Chicago, along with a couple hundred other YPs.  This opportunity has helped to develop my professional network, and engage with other like-minded people who are passionate about helping others.  As we get older it is harder to meet people outside of your existing network of friends, and the YPB enables new connections, and greater exposure to the Special Olympics organization and its staff.  Additionally, Special Olympics has a leadership development program for select athletes.  This Global Messenger program helps to grow networking skills and enables athletes to be a part of the great fundraising effort that is undertaken each year.  Again, this program has enabled Georgia to feel comfortable speaking to crowds of over 10,000 and make connections at universities speaking to students.  She is a respected member of the group, and seeing her walk into a networking room with confidence is something that I never knew if she’d be able to do and, thanks to Special Olympics, it is now second nature to her.

In short, the independent life of my sister, the community for my parents, the development opportunities for me and my peers, is unrivaled, and would not be possible without Special Olympics.  To me, it means my sister and those around her living a fulfilled, engaged, and happy life.


Sister, Sister


 

Jordan Dullnigg is a 18-year-old senior at Metea Valley High School. When she isn’t spending time with family and friends, she is attending school events writing stories for her school newspaper, or spending time behind the camera capturing memories.

More than anything, though, Jordan enjoys spending time with her twin sister, and Special Olympics Illinois athlete, Kirsten.

“Kirsten has cerebral palsy and hemiparesis of her right side as well as being blind in her right eye,” explains Jordan.

“She loves her music, mostly Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and she loves the song ‘July’ by Noah Cyrus. She would listen to it all day if you let her! She also likes to put papers in folders and organize things.”

Kirsten has been competing since 2016 in swimming (walk and assisted float), track and field (50m walk), and bowling. Jordan has also participated as a Unified Partner in soccer and basketball.

Kirsten and Jordan are just like your typical sisters. Kirsten loves to jump at the opportunity to drive in Jordan’s car, so whenever they cruise around they listen to – you guessed it – Katy Perry.

“Normally on Friday nights we would go participate at A Special Place, which is a small theatre company for people with disabilities. But since we just had the show, I like to take her on a girls night every now and then!”

Another favorite thing of Kirsten’s? Legos!

“At school in class though she loves her Legos. If she gets them taken away it’s a whole big deal at dinner later that night!”

You may think twins have a “super power” where they can read each other’s minds or know what the other person is thinking. That’s not the case for Jordan and Kirsten, but Jordan does know her sister better than anyone and understands when she needs something. Kirsten’s disability does not slow her, or Jordan’s, life down. They continue to take over the Special Olympics world one competition at a time.

“I wouldn’t say her disability ‘changed’ her life. I would say that is just her life. Kirsten learns to adapt to so many situations and makes her own way of doing things. Yes, it affects her sometimes but that’s just life for her, and she can definitely work her way around it.”

Kirsten and Jordan, a pair of twins who amidst their difference have found so much in common, and help each other live life the fullest…because that’s what sisters are for.


Meet Eddie Sitzman


 

Eddie is a very busy sixteen year old living a productive life filled with family, education, faith, community, and athletics.

He attends Oak Park and River Forest High School where he learns in an inclusive, general education environment with support from resource and co-teachers.  He is an Usher at Sunday mass, provides care and feeding of pets in the neighborhood, and helps manage the varsity soccer team.  Best Buddies and Opportunity Knocks are among his social outlets and he is looking forward to his second summer at Camp PALS, a sleep away camp for young adults with Down syndrome.  Eddie is a natural athlete with a strong will to succeed and a passion to participate in sport in any form.

We were introduced to Special Olympics Illinois in 2008 by a fellow parishioner who asked whether our five year old would be interested in a Young Athlete Program.  The next week our new friend stopped by the house with a bag full of athletic gear and instructions for physical activities.  We created obstacle courses and games and watched as our intent for purposeful development of fundamental motor skills and eye-hand coordination transformed into inclusive play and athletic competition among neighbors and classmates.  At the age of nine, Eddie started training with West Suburban Special Recreation Association (WSSRA) to participate in his first Special Olympics track and field competition.  Classmates, teachers, and extended family came to watch, Eddie thrived on the attention and we witnessed the unleashing of his competitive spirit.  It was clear that this was going to be his thing…and his extended family and friends came along for the ride.

Among the driving forces for Eddie’s development in middle school was a dynamic special education teacher who championed inclusion and nurtured Eddie’s evolving self-awareness.  She guided him into the Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools program where he became a member of the Youth Activation Committee made up of young people from around the state committed to activating students with the tools and skills to build cultures of inclusiveness.  His athletic achievement expanded from regional to the Special Olympics Summer Games and a Unified Soccer team that competed in Special Olympics tournaments at Chicago Fire’s Toyota Park.

Now in his sophomore year of high school, Eddie’s passion for athletic competition is fulfilled by Unified Soccer (State Champions), Basketball (State Qualified), and Swimming (State Qualified).   Sidelined by the global response to COVID-19, his plans to compete in Special Olympics Track & Field, Soccer, and Golf have given way to long walks, bike rides, and shooting baskets in the back yard…and plenty of time to reflect on the person he has become.

Eddie is aware that he has a disability, accepts the inherent challenges, and genuinely likes who he is. As a Youth Activation representative he advocated to “Spread the Word to End the Word” in classrooms and at events.  He appeared on Fox Morning News to talk about celebrating our differences and helped create the tag line “Respect is My Superpower”. 

Physical fitness and healthy choices are part of Eddie’s mindset and daily routine.  The quality of the Special Olympics experience has instilled in him a life-long interest in healthy behavior that has made him more resilient and will improve the quality of his adult life.

The structure of Special Olympics competition has allowed Eddie to find his level of excellence, celebrate his abilities and convey a quiet confidence in every aspect of his life.  He believes that with the right attitude and effort good things are possible. 

Eddie is an extraordinary young man and a positive influence in the collaboration that forms the fabric of his community….’it takes a village’.  We would be remiss not to express our deep gratitude to members of the Oak Park School and Park Districts, Special Recreation Associations, his incredible classmates and their parents…and of course our fellow parishioner, now good friend, who introduced us to Special Olympics Illinois.