Region D Stories Stories

Student Athlete Coordinates Inclusive Practices with Her Team


Meet Klaire Steffens, a sophomore student athlete at the University of Chicago.

She is majoring in Public Policy and minoring in Education and Society. Apart from being a member of the basketball team, she is on the executive board of the Women’s Athletic Association (WAA), co-president of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee, and a member of the Trott Business Program.

Part of her role as WAA Promotions Coordinator is to organize inclusive practices with Chicago’s Special Olympics Illinois (SOILL) teams. Her teammate and co-president of the WAA brought inclusive practices to UChicago because of the belief that is shared with them all that, “regardless of a so-called ‘disability,’ these athletes deserve to play and practice on a stage as large as all of the hard work which they have put into their sport,” per Miranda Burt (Class of 2020).

The inclusive practices bring in local Special Olympics Illinois teams to practice alongside varsity athletes on campus. This past year they had soccer, flag football, and basketball practices.

In addition to the inclusive practices, WAA hosts an annual fundraising event, Slam Dunk, during the Women’s and Men’s basketball games to raise money for these teams. They raise funds through raffle ticket sales leading up to and during the games. Klaire is so moved when she is playing on the court and looks up to the stands to see some of the Special Olympics athletes that have practiced with the team. They come to Slam Dunk to support their teams as well as play in a basketball game with their athletes during halftime.

Beyond the inclusive practices, WAA usually hosts a Special Olympics Field Day in the spring. This is an incredibly fun day where all of these Special Olympics Illinois teams come together with the University of Chicago male and female athletes to play soccer, basketball, flag football, track, and tennis.

As a student-athlete, Klaire does undergo the typical stress of tests, assignments, and managing a 20+ hour weekly commitment to basketball. However, her involvement with Special Olympics always brings her and other athletes joy.

The SOILL athletes always arrive on campus with contagious smiles beaming across their faces. Whenever the team sets foot on the field or court, the Special Olympics Illinois athletes manage to keep those smiles while also turning their competitive juices on. During the practices Klaire forgets about whatever assignments she may have because she is all consumed in the fun and competitive atmosphere. Perhaps the most meaningful take away that she has had is the relationships that she has built by practicing with the same teams consistently throughout the year in a variety of sports. Some of her other fellow student athletes and Klaire are on a first-name basis with many of the SOILL athletes. Whenever they call out Klaire and her teammates names or come give them high fives, their hearts warm.

Many UChicago athletes have told Klaire that SOILL athletes make their day. They are given the privilege to deliver checks from the Slam Dunk money to some of the teams that practice with them. Seeing how hard the SOILL athletes work, their own practice facilities, and how meaningful the funds are is eye opening. They are grateful that they are able to help provide the SOILL athletes the gear that they deserve and experience practices with them.

The Special Olympic athletes’ passion for their sport radiates throughout the inclusive practices. Their passion reminds the UChicago team of the pure love and joy that comes from one’s sport.

Meet Stephen Katz


Stephen Katz is a young man of many talents. Born in November of 1984, Stephen entered the world with blond hair, blue eyes, nostagmia, Down Syndrome, and jaundice. The jaundice gave way to several days under the Billierubin Lights… perhaps that was a sign of things to come as stage lights were in his future!

Stephen also had hypotonia which is a weak muscle condition that caused his arms and legs to just hang from his body. That diagnosis gave way to a word being eliminated from our vocabulary: “CAN’T.” After so many doctors, specialists, insurance companies and other professionals left our family overloaded with “CAN’TS,” we chose “CAN” and boy “CAN” he ever now!

Stephen has been bagging groceries for the last 14+ years at Jewel/Osco and has been named Employee of the Month. He also was named The Change for Champions Ambassador for Special Olympics Illinois/Jewel-Osco in 2016. On top of winning numerous Gold, Silver and Bronze medals and Ribbons in his 27 years of competition, he is training to become a Global Messenger and earn the Navy Blue Blazer. Stephen has participated in many sports over the years, starting with Track & Field when he was eight years old. He has a long list of sports that he has participated in including Running and Standing Long Jumps, Softball Throw, 50- and100-Meter dash and Relay, and then Shot Put in High School. Basketball was added in Middle School, continued through High School, and he still participates with the local Special Rec Association. SRA also provided the training needed for gymnastics, which he also added in High School and progressed and continued after graduation in 2006. Swimming, Volleyball and Powerlifting were also added in High School, and he continued volleyball for several years, as well, after he graduated. Stephen retired approximately 10 years ago as an All Around Athlete, with his final District meet netting him all Gold medals in his seven events.

His prowess in powerlifting continues with an independent team called “The Rebels” with his workouts taking place at a local CrossFit facility. Stephen’s current lift stats as of the 2019 Special Olympic Illinois Summer Games included the Squat at 250 lbs., where he earned silver; Benchpress at 205lbs., where he earned Bronze; and Deadlift at 315 lbs., where he earned Gold!

Stephen doesn’t stop there! He also plays baseball for the BGRA Buddy Baseball League, and it was his idea to also help coach the junior teams.
Weeks, months and years of feeding, occupational, speech and physical therapies have led Stephen to enjoy tasting new foods, like reindeer sausage on a trip to Alaska, and Stephen’s “CAN DO” spirit has helped him to achieve many of his successes in sports and in life. He has walked across a suspension bridge in Tennessee, explored caves in South Dakota, sledded down a 300-foot ice run in Fairbanks, Alaska, and changed diapers (only #1…) for his niece and nephews. He also adds modeling and volunteering for the NWSRA/SLSF Gold Medal Fashion Show to his list of non-stop activities!

Stephen has two Looney Tunes illustrations hanging in his room. One says “Determination” and the other says “Persistence.” Perhaps it is those that have encouraged his “Can Do” spirit and his “Funnyman” sense of humor. That spirit helped earn him the Freeburg award in 2006. Stephen volunteers for NWSRA/SLSF, the local Frontier Days Festival, and Special Olympics Illinois, and in 2012 Stephen and his parents received the Volunteer Family of the Year Award from Special Olympics Illinois.
Stephen continues to impress with his smile, sense of humor, and willingness to help, but it is that “CAN DO” spirit that truly makes him special.

Special Olympics Illinois Opens Chicago Headquarters


CHICAGO, January 9, 2020 – Special Olympics Illinois, the only Illinois entity accredited by Special Olympics Inc., is opening a Chicago headquarters in the West Loop as the Chicago-born non-profit expands programming to ensure people with intellectual disabilities an ever-expanding opportunity for growth.

The Chicago office for Special Olympics Illinois (SOILL) will bring the organization closer to a growing constituency in the city as it expands and introduces new programs. Roughly, 53,000 people in Chicago live with intellectual disabilities. Currently, Special Olympics Illinois serves about 6,000 athletes, ages 8 and older of all ethnicities.

“We are moving into the West Loop to expand our work in Chicago. We want Chicagoans to know Special Olympics is much more than a track meet. We are a leader in health services for people with intellectual disabilities and we enhance life skills to build confidence,” said David Breen, president of Special Olympics Illinois. “And with our key partners, many of whom are in the city, we can work together to bridge inclusion hurdles, so our athletes have equal opportunities to prosper as contributing adults.”

Already in Chicago, Special Olympics Unified School programming is offered at 19 Chicago Public Schools. Unified Champion Schools (UCS) is an all ages, education-based program supported through the Federal Department of Education. At Unified Champion Schools, students with and without intellectual disabilities work together to develop, skills and opportunities to build change and help their schools develop true cultures of inclusiveness.

Later this month, SOILL will host a professional development seminar for schools that have implemented Unified programming and for those interested in learning more. It is the first of several informational meetings planned for the year. Significant expansion plans throughout CPS are on tap for 2020 adding to the expanding list of 280+ UCS schools throughout Illinois.

Ahead of the move into Chicago, SOILL hired an outreach director to work with Chicago Public Schools to expand programming for students with intellectual disabilities. Also, SOILL hired a government relations specialist to expand development and partnership opportunities for the Chicago region.

The West Loop office will provide SOILL additional opportunities to help corporate sponsors to work on solutions for workplace diversity and inclusion issues. “Inclusion creates career opportunities for our athletes, and we are at a time when companies are looking to us for help on implementing their goals for a more inclusive workforce,” Breen said.

“Furthermore, given the area’s continued business and residential growth, our new office will help us better connect with the city’s young professionals looking to spend time with our inspiring athletes and growing our mission.”

SOILL will host an invitation-only Open House on January 15 in its new space, 820 W. Jackson Blvd. The Chicago office will complement Special Olympics Illinois’ existing state headquarters in Normal, Ill.

Patrick McCarthy’s Be Your Best Video Debuted @ Inspire Greatness Gala


Patrick McCarthy’s Be Your Best Video Debuted at the 12th Annual Inspire Greatness Gala for Special Olympics Illinois

The event raised 1.3 million with 750 attendees.

On Saturday, May 11 Special Olympics Illinois hosted the 12th Annual Inspire Greatness Gala at the Fairmont Chicago. The event welcomed over 700 guests and raised $1.3 million for the athletes of Special Olympics Illinois.

The event was chaired by Michael L. Scudder, Chief Executive Officer, First Midwest Bancorp Inc., along with Executive Vice Chair, Joe Antunovich, President, Antunovich Associates.

Zimyra Ross, Special Olympics Illinois athlete, co-emceed the program alongside, Special Olympics Illinois Board Member and Chicago Journalist, Rob Johnson.

United Airlines and its staff were recognized for their dedication to the Special Olympics mission and people with intellectual disabilities.

The night continued with a special message from Patrick McCarthy, the featured Special Olympics Illinois athlete of the evening. Attendees enjoyed an uplifting and comical video, titled Be Your Best, which took guests through the many facets of Patrick’s life as a Special Olympics Illinois athlete. The video guest starred Hamilton Chicago cast members, Miguel Cervantes & Jamaal Fields- Green as well as Jon Seda of Chicago P.D.

The video concluded with crowd-roaring applause and a standing ovation. Patrick’s smile was infectious as the audience continued to cheer his name as walked to the podium to give his speech.

Patrick spoke about the many opportunities Special Olympics Illinois has afforded him. He added in humor, personality, spunk to his speech. Patrick inspired the audience to be their best, just like Special Olympics Illinois inspired greatness within Patrick.

The Be Your Best video could not have been a success without the help of many contributors. Thank you to Cinespace Chicago, Hamilton Chicago cast members, Johnny’s Ice House, Jon Seda of NBC Chicago P.D., Lowes Hotel, Misericordia Heart of Mercy, Noise Floor Sound Solutions, and Panera Bread.

Event Sponsors:

  • Gold Sponsors: First Midwest Bank, and Mike & Karen Atwood
  • Silver Sponsors: Advocate Health Care, Antunovich Associates, Ariel Investments, Blue Cross BlueShield of Illinois, KPMG, Magellan Corporation, MAKE Corporation, McKinsey & Company, The Stack Family Foundation & Jim and Mary Corrigan, Tom & Jan Murray Family Foundation, Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, and Union Carpenters & Contractors
  • Champagne Sponsors: Chapman and Cutler LLP, Goldman Sachs, and Sandler O’Neil + Partners L.P.
  • Bronze Sponsors: Advantage Paving Solutions, AJ Gallagher, Coupa, Elkay, EY, Foley & Lardner LLP, Forum Financial, Gelber Group, Hyatt, ITW, Jenny & P. Jay Fortner Family Fund, JP Morgan, Knights of Columbus, Pat and Rosemary O’Connor Family, PNC, Stephens Inc., Taft, Stettinius, & Hollister, TransUnion, USG, VedderPriceSM, and Wintrust

20 Years of Dedication


On November 5, 2018, the United Center hosted the 20th Annual Special Olympics Illinois MedFest. The 2018 MedFest brought 1,557 aspiring and current Special Olympics athletes from across the city of Chicago to the United Center. Athletes received free sports physicals from over 130 health professionals from Advocate Medical Group.

Special Olympics Illinois provided transportation to and from the event for all athletes, bringing them in from a network of Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Park District, and private institutions.

Ernan Carranza, Special Olympics Illinois athlete from Graham Elementary had a great first experience at MedFest. “The doctors were very nice and made me feel comfortable and relaxed while getting my exam.”

For 20 years, the Chicago Medfest has made the seemingly impossible happen. Medfest could not happen without the continuous support of The United Center, Advocate Medical Group, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois and Levy Restaurants; the organizations have opened their doors and dedicated staff to MedFest for 20 amazing years.

“We are kind of lucky; as doctors and nurses, our job description states how we can better serve our community. When you have the opportunity to serve people with even greater challenges, it causes you to pause & reflect- you feel like your work has meaning,” said Dr. Tony Hampton, a family medicine physician with Advocate Medical Group.

Dr. Hampton has been volunteering at MedFest for the past 8 years. After year one of volunteering, Tony was hooked. He began volunteering as a way to get out and give back to his community. Every year Tony leaves MedFest feeling inspired.

“I love MedFest because it allows me to compete in the sports I love, such as basketball and track & field,” said Javier Velez- Special Olympics Illinois athlete from Graham Elementary.

This event is impactful for more than its number of athletes served; it is remembered for its continuous welcoming smiles, endless stickers, and countless high fives.

Pictures Found Here !