Region F Stories Stories

Be Bold, Get Cold, and Be Kind


The cold weather did not stop Special Olympics Illinois athlete Kaylee McLaughlin from taking the Plunge At Home. Kaylee took the Polar Plunge from home on Sunday, February 21, where she took an icy dip into a pool.

Like many, this was her first time plunging at home. Historically, she has plunged into Wick’s Lake in Rock Island with family, friends, and supporters by her side.  She has also participated in the WIU Plunge in Macomb and the Lake Storey Plunge in Galesburg. Kaylee’s first plunge was in 2017, but she has been supporting her Father’s plunge efforts for over a decade. 

There was no shortage of creativity when it comes to finding ways to encourage family, friends, and the public to champion her Plunge At Home endeavor. From posting countdown photos and videos on her personal Facebook page to selling bracelets and homemade enchiladas to the local Warren County community.

Kaylee is consistently one of the top Polar Plunge fundraisers. This year, Kaylee surpassed her fundraising goal by raising over $5,600. Polar Plunge isn’t the only event Kaylee champions. She supports the Ducky Derby, local Region F fundraisers, and so much more!

Despite the pandemic, in 2020, Kaylee raised over $13,000 for the organization.

When asked where her motivation comes from, Kaylee said, “I love Special Olympics. More than almost anything!”

“I love all the opportunities Special Olympics Illinois offers the athletes, especially the fundraising opportunities that allow me to fundraise my heart out so the program can continue to grow.”

To learn more about the Polar Plunge and how to get involved, please visit

A Father’s Perspective on Special Olympics Illinois


How the organization has influenced not only my daughter, but also my entire family.

By Ken Walker

My daughter, Emilee Walker, got her start with Special Olympics Illinois fifteen years ago when her teacher asked her if she would like to join the Special Olympics bowling team. Emilee took a leap of faith and said yes.

While Emilee was competing we volunteered at the tournament. Our family ended up loving the experience so much that we met the Region Director, Cathy Betar, and were asked to help with future tournaments. That day marked the beginning of a life-long journey with Special Olympics Illinois. Fifteen years later and we are still volunteering at various events.

Over that time, our family has had many memories to cherish. Emilee has such a strong love for bowling, so much so she wishes she could live at the bowling alley. Both the sport and Special Olympics have helped Emilee to see that she is not alone.

Competing with Special Olympics Illinois has given my daughter a sense of community. She has come to realize that her fellow athletes are accepting of her for who she is despite her disability.

Because of Special Olympics sports like bowling and track and field, our whole family began making friendships.

In 2014, Emilee was chosen to represent Illinois at the Special Olympics USA Games in New Jersey. There she competed in bowling and won a gold, silver, and bronze medal. USA Games were one of many firsts for Emilee. She flew on an airplane for the first time and saw the Statue of Liberty. Her favorite part of the entire experience was the opening ceremony where every delegation was highlighted as they walked in. As parents, we could not be more proud!

In 2016, Emilee took another big step and became a Global Messenger. The Athlete Leadership program has helped her gain the confidence to tell her story. Emilee has made several speeches at large events, as well as been featured on local TV to help promote fundraisers for the organization. 

Special Olympics Illinois is not just an organization dedicated to individuals with disabilities, nonetheless a family- a wonderful family to us. If someone in our Special Olympics family is hurting, we are there to console them. If they are celebrating a happy moment, we are there to celebrate with them. If they are doing a fundraiser of any kind, we are there volunteering to support Special Olympics Illinois. 

With all of this said, our family could not have foreseen the incredible impact the organization has made on not only Emilee, but also our entire family. Register at your family table, you won’t regret it.

50 Years of Golden Inspiration


On February 6th, 7th, and 8th, Galena will once again welcome athletes from throughout the state for the Special Olympics Illinois Winter Games.  It will also be one particular athlete’s chance to be golden… again.

Just a few months before the first Special Olympics games at Soldier Field in Chicago, the world welcomed Mike Barry. Now, almost fifty years later, Mike has accomplished more than many would ever dream to do in a lifetime.  After all, how many of us can claim that we compete, and win, in a myriad of sports including Alpine Skiing, Track and Field, Softball, Golf, Volleyball, and Basketball.  Mike has done so and in fact, he was been named a Special Olympics Illinois Athlete of the Year, and has participated in the national and international Special Olympics Games.

One of Mike’s first opportunities to shine came when he was in Monmouth High School.  His Special Education teacher was also the Track and Field coach, and recognized that Mike had athletic skills. “He invited Mike to compete on the school team and all his team mates embraced him” says Cathy Betar, Region F Director for Special Olympics Illinois, “and that was long before inclusion was a thing like it is today.”

The desire to be inclusive is one of the many qualities noted about Mike by his peers.  For example, when asked about Mike’s abilities, his current coach for the Warren County Special Olympics Falcons, Tom Glenn, says, “He’s a leader in a quiet way.  He’s always positive and he has the ability to perform under pressure.”  Mike and Tom met in May of 2015 when Mike was preparing to go to the Summer Games in Bloomington, Illinois, and has been inspiring Tom ever since.  “He loves Special Olympics and he loves competing” says Tom. “He enjoys his teammates and his coaches, and he never has an unkind word or poor sportsmanship in any way.”

The inspiration continues when Mike isn’t competing, as he brings joy to customers whom have seen him at work at Cerar’s Barnstormer Steakhouse restaurant in Monmouth for over 20 years.  “That boy rides his bike here regardless of the weather” says Lori Callihan, Bar Manager, who has known Mike for over 30 years. “He has the biggest heart.  Whether it’s a job or a favor, Mike never says no. He is just a giving person throughout every aspect of life. He inspires all of us because, well, he is just so sweet. He does the dishes and smiles the whole time he does it.”

Mike gives a whole new meaning to the word drive, too, not referring to the act of making a car move. Driving an automobile is one of the few things that Mike doesn’t do, but that didn’t stop him a few years ago.  Cathy Betar recalls, “He had missed his ride to compete in our Spring Games so he jumped on his bicycle and rode it 16 miles just so he could compete.”

Mike is driving, again, in another way to help his wife, Joyce, as she undergoes cancer therapy.  “Mike has always been there for Joyce supporting her.  As an athlete, when I first met him, he was being positive and encouraging her to do her best” says his coach, Tom.  “During Joyce’s illness he has been like a rock and very positive and always has a good outlook.”

The state, the nation, and the world are preparing to come together this July to celebrate the birth of Special Olympics fifty years ago.  It was at those first games when many people had their first glimpse at the athleticism, drive, and compassion shown by their peers with intellectual disabilities.  And as friends and family help Mike Barry celebrate his 50th birthday, they, too, will be celebrating a man whom has demonstrated his athletic abilities and drive, while encouraging and bringing joy to others.

Happy Birthday, Special Olympics.  Happy Birthday, Mike.  Thank you both, for providing inspiration for so many, and for demonstrating that love for others is truly golden.

Volunteers Instrumental to Success of Winter Games


Every year Special Olympics Illinois relies on the generosity of tens of thousands of volunteers to put on nearly 300 events and competitions. These helpers, comprised of family members, friends, students, corporate sponsors and community members, are key to both local and statewide initiatives.

Many volunteers return to the same events annually and become a part of tradition. The athletes smile at familiar faces, and create bonds with those helping to ensure their success.

Over three days, the State Winter Games will see nearly 100 volunteers.

Leah and Ron Unger have been involved with Special Olympics for over six years. It was their granddaughter, Tamara, who got them involved.

“We attended a few functions and loved being with her new friends,” Leah explains. “Over time we felt this was something we needed to be involved in at the local level.”

Since getting involved in Western/Area 4, the pair has volunteered at the local, district and state level including the Galesburg, Macomb and Rock Island Polar Plunges, bowling, basketball and aquatics competitions, and more. In fact, Leah and Ron have become known as Grandma and Grandpa to the 90 athletes competing in their local agency.

This is the third year they will volunteer at hospitality, where among many other things they serve up hot chocolate.

In 2014, Tamara represented Illinois by going to New Jersey for the USA Games in aquatics where she earned two gold, one silver and one bronze medal.

Their first year volunteering at Winter Games, Leah recalls they came to support to athletes from their area who generally did not have anyone to cheer for them. The Ungers arrived early in downtown Galena for the Opening Ceremony. She and Ron were greeted by several athletes who were thrilled to show off the shops and sights in the area. The group quickly bonded.

“Ron particular connected with each of the male athletes and to this day they seek him out to share stories about what is going on in their lives.”

Another annual Winter Games volunteer is Dave Schultz who has been involved in Special Olympics for over ten years.

“I’m always impressed by the skill and sportsmanship of the athletes,” Dave explains.” No matter what the competition, they always try their best and help each other out.

You can find Dave on the mountain early to help set up both the sprint and distance courses, and during competitions he keeps busy assisting athletes to and from various venues. He also provides encouragement to the athletes during the distance events.

Dave says he has so many fond memories of Winter Games that it’s hard to single one out, however, at the Opening Ceremony a few years prior he described seeing the parade and torch coming through downtown as “magical.”

“As always, I am looking forward to Winter Games this year. No matter what event I volunteer at I always get way more out of it than what effort I put in!

Maureen Hunt has been volunteering with Special Olympics for five years this spring. She has a year-round presence, helping out at everything from tennis and golf to floor hockey and basketball, though she admits Spring Games are her favorite.

At Winter Games, Maureen volunteers with cross country skiing and snowshoeing and her roles have included timing, escorting athletes, cheering out on the course and more.

“At my very first event an athlete came up to me and asked if I would be his best friend for life,” Maureen explains.

“I, of course, said I would love to be his best friend for life. Ever since that day, when he sees me at an event, he gives me a big hug and a smile. Makes my day.”

Special Olympics Illinois thanks all of the Winter Games volunteers – and all of those who have, or will, volunteer throughout the year.



Special Olympics is a Family Affair for Davis Family


Hayden Davis of Washington and his family have been involved with Special Olympics Illinois Heartland/Area 6 since 2002. Hayden, a 23-year-old athlete with the Tazewood Warriors Special Olympics team, has participated in five different sports throughout his time with Special Olympics.


Hayden Davis competes in 4×400-meter relay race at 2016 Summer Games

Hayden participated in the 4×400-meter relay race at the 2016 Summer Games at Illinois State University. Since he began in 2002, he has also participated in the 100-meter run, softball throw, snowshoe and bowling. During the 2015 Winter Games in Galena, Hayden earned a gold medal in the 400-meter snowshoe.

Because of Hayden’s participation year-round, Special Olympics has been a major part of the Davis family’s lives. Sharla, Hayden’s mother, is a key member of the Heartland/Area 6 Family Action Network. “When I learned about the Family Network, I was excited to get involved. Being part of the Family Network helps you be part of making Special Olympics a better organization,” said Sharla.

Sharla and her husband, Tim, are always looking for ways to help and do everything that they can to support Special Olympics. They attend all of Hayden’s events and take on a volunteer role whenever they can.

Special Olympics has been a growing experience for both Hayden and his family. “At first, it was challenging for Hayden to wait for his turn to participate in an event and while he waited for his award. As years have passed, his patience has improved immensely. He now understands the process and is willing to wait,” said Sharla.

Hayden Davis worked with local officers at the Pekin Dunkin' Donuts Cop on Rooftop event

Hayden Davis worked with local officers at the Pekin Dunkin’ Donuts Cop on Rooftop event

The Davises have noticed a growing independence with their son. When Hayden first began Special Olympics, he did not want Sharla to leave while he was at practice. Now he does not want her to stay at practice at all.

“Growing has been just as much of a process for the parents as it is for the athletes,” Sharla said of the Special Olympics families. “Families experience Special Olympics just as much as the athletes. We see things that go well and things that can be improved.”

The Davis family plans to continue their participation and support with Special Olympics Illinois and they hope that other families choose to do the same.

By Megan Jensen, Communications Intern