Region H Stories Stories

Meet Ben Simpson


Ben Simpson has been competing in Special Olympics Illinois for 25 years and is an active participant in basketball, equestrian, golf, snowshoeing, swimming, and his personal favorite, powerlifting!  He is a familiar face at many State Championship events as a competitor, but will also be adding the title of assistant coach to his resume, serving in that role during this year’s Summer Games.

While certainly impressive, Ben’s success is hardly limited to just the field of play.  In addition to his remarkable collection of medals, he is an energetic advocate for Special Olympics programs as an Athlete Leader, and was also recently elected to serve on the Special Olympics Illinois Board of Directors!  Ben takes great pride in sharing his experience and vision for improving the Special Olympics experience for everyone involved.  As part of his term with the Board of Directors, Ben’s voice will be instrumental in shaping a new strategic plan for the organization. 

The variety of experiences Ben has enjoyed through Special Olympics have positively influenced his life.  He credits his involvement in the program in helping him build confidence, become stronger, healthier, more outgoing, as well as being more patient.  These traits have carried over into his work life and helped him become a trusted and respected team member at his place of employment – Casey’s!  A member of Casey’s team for the past six years, Ben is very proud of his work and has made many good friends during his tenure.  He received his foodservice certificate last year and is always excited to assist with the food when he gets a chance.  Perhaps it’s the powerlifter in him, but it seems to be a great match!

A personal highlight Ben wanted to share was reciting the Special Olympics Athlete Oath at the 2017 Special Olympics Illinois Summer Games, helping to declare the games open as part of the Opening Ceremony.  These words spoken in front of a packed football stadium serve as an important reminder for us all:  “Let me win.  But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt”.

2016 SOILL Outstanding Volunteer of the Year


Eric Smith of Sherman has received the 2016 Special Olympics Illinois’ Outstanding Volunteer of the Year Award. He was honored at a reception on June 10 before the Special Olympics Illinois Summer Games Opening Ceremony at Illinois State University in Normal.

The Outstanding Volunteer Award recognizes an individual who through their voluntary efforts improve the quality of the Special Olympics Illinois program to benefit all aspects of the organization.

Former Chief of Sherman Police Department Eric Smith has been a Special Olympics volunteer for 11 years. He has been an invaluable asset to not only the athletes of Special Olympics Illinois, but Special Olympics athletes around the globe. He has given generous amounts of time to the organization while serving his community through his law enforcement responsibilities.

For many years, Eric served an integral role within the Law Enforcement Torch Run (LETR) Committee, gladly accepting new responsibilities. In 2011, he was called to lead the Illinois program and serve as the state’s Torch Run director. Under his leadership, the Illinois LETR soared to new heights in terms of fundraising and creating awareness for Special Olympics. Through Smith’s direction and leadership, the Illinois LETR raised $3 million in 2013, and raised more than $4 million last year. Smith takes pride in making sure the law enforcement community puts forward their best effort for this program, so that the Special Olympics athletes are afforded the opportunities to demonstrate their abilities. It has been Smith’s personal goal to have law enforcement from every corner of our state embrace the Torch Run as a year-round movement, rather than a week-long run.

One of the highlights of Smith’s involvement with Special Olympics was that he was selected as a Law Enforcement Torch Run Final Leg Runner for the 2015 World Games in Los Angeles. For two weeks, he ran the Flame of Hope throughout California. Eric noted that “the camaraderie and being that close to the athletes and running with them, seeing the communities cheering you on as you ran – you can’t really explain it, you’ve just got to experience it.” He is also a key organizer for the Springfield Dunkin’ Donuts Cop on Rooftop event and Texas Roadhouse Benefit lunch.

Smith says that Special Olympics has been the most rewarding experience that he and his wife have been involved in. His daughter Ashley has also become involved with the Law Enforcement Torch Run in Kansas.

“Perhaps the greatest thing I can say about Eric is that if you were to ask him, he would genuinely rather see others be honored with this exceptional award,” said Smith’s nominator. He is well-deserving of this recognition not only for the impact he has made, but for the smiles that the Torch Run creates.

Special Olympics Illinois is a not-for-profit organization offering year-round training and competition in 19 sports for more than 22,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities and more than 20,000 Young Athletes ages 2-7 with and without intellectual disabilities. Special Olympics transforms the lives of people with intellectual disabilities, allowing them to realize their full potential in sports and in life. Special Olympics programs enhance physical fitness, motor skills, self-confidence, social skills, and encourage family and community support. If you are interested in learning more about Special Olympics Illinois, volunteering or providing financial support to help make Special Olympics programs possible, contact your local Special Olympics agency, call 800-394-0562 or visit our website

Area News – May 2016


Far West Suburban/Area 2

29th Annual Midwest Golf Celebrity Pro-Am

The 29th Annual Midwest Golf Celebrity Pro-Am to benefit Far West Suburban/Area 2 will be June 20 at The Royal Fox Country Club in St. Charles.

Molly Sosnowski,

Molly Sosnowski, Eric Soderholm and Kevin Mikan at the 2015 Midwest Golf Celebrity Pro-Am.

The format for this year’s event will match professional athletes, and other celebrities with amateur foursomes in a scramble format tournament. Some of the celebrities expected to attend are Eric Soderholm, Cliff Levingston, Ronnie Bull, Ike Hill, Bob Parsons, Paul Popovich and Jim Thornton.

Registration begins at 9 a.m., with a shotgun start at 10:30 a.m. There will be cocktails and a dinner/auction after the day’s golfing.

This event offers attendees the opportunity to join the network of corporations and individuals who contribute to the success of thousands of Special Olympics athletes in the Chicagoland area. Please join us this year as a sponsor or individual golfer, or if you can’t attend, consider making a financial contribution.

For more information, contact Amy Kaylor at 630-377-7250. View event registration flyer.

Chicago/Area 3

Young Professionals Board Pub Crawl Raises Funds for Area 3

Team USA photoMore than 175 people showed up on Saturday, April 23, for the 11th Annual Young Professionals Board Pub Crawl. Pub Crawl guests visited seven pubs in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago and enjoyed drink and food specials throughout the day. Warm weather contributed to a fun afternoon enjoyed in a historic part of Chicago. The event concluded with food donated by Chipotle and a fun raffle.

Event co-chairs Kaitlyn Rosen and Mae Rodovitch and their planning committee arranged a fabulous raffle featuring tickets to comedy clubs, bowling parties, gift cards to spas and salons as well as gift cards to more than a dozen Chicago restaurants. Several guests were awarded best costume as part of the Team America theme and received restaurant gift cards in recognition. The event raised more than $4,600 to support athletes who participate in the Chicago/Area 3 program.

The Young Professionals Board (YPB) was formed in 2005 to raise funds for Special Olympics Illinois Chicago/Area 3.  For more information, contact Kathy McLaughlin.

Heartland/Area 6

Lip Sync Battle to Benefit Area 6

LipSynclogo4Special Olympics Illinois Heartland/Area 6 and the Law Enforcement Torch Run are hosting a Lip Sync Battle on Aug. 11. This inaugural event will feature Central Illinois celebrities who will “sing” their hearts out against other local celebrities to raise money and awareness for our Area 6 athletes and their families.

Lip Sync contestants will perform to one of their favorite songs for the audience, who will in turn vote for their favorite acts with a donation. They are encouraged to wear costumes and can invite friends or family to be their backup singers/dancers! In addition, Best Costume and “Keep Your Day Job” awards will be presented.

The Lip Sync Battle will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. Aug. 11 at Mackinaw Valley Vineyard. The Vineyard will be selling its wine and beer selections throughout the evening. Tickets are $20 per person and can be purchased online.

For more information please contact Mollie Knutson or Jordan Vose.

East Central/Area 9

Coach of the Year Awarded at Spring Games

Windsor Schools team

Windsor Schools team

For the first time, Special Olympics Illinois Eastern Central/Area 9 recognized a coach with an award which recognizing the coach’s outstanding leadership abilities, volunteerism and dedication to Special Olympics sports programs at Spring Games.

The Area 9 Coach of the Year award was presented to Terry Prasun, head Special Olympics coach of the Windsor Schools team.

“The decision as to which of the 82 head coaches in the Area should win the inaugural Coach of the Year award was not an easy decision by any means,” said Vanessa Duncan, Area Director. “This decision was most difficult because of the many superstar coaches that lead, train, and love our Special Olympics Area 9 athletes.”

Prasun is an admired coach who trains her athletes in four sports throughout the year, including athletics (track & field), bocce, basketball and bowling. Read More

Little Brooklyn Raises BIG Support

Brooklyn Schutte, a second-grade athlete of the Neoga/Sigel Indians Special Olympics team, loves to run, loves to smile, and loves to support Special Olympics Illinois East Central/Area 9.

Brooklyn Schutte

Brooklyn Schutte

Brooklyn competed in the 100-meter race and the softball throw event at the 2016 East Central/Area 9 Spring Games at Eastern Illinois University, earning a medal in both of events.  But not only is Brooklyn an amazing athlete, she is also a fierce fundraiser for Area 9.

During the past two years, Brooklyn, her parents and family members have hosted fundraisers to provide financial support so that Area 9 can continue to offer free sports training and competitions, as well as add competition and family events. Last year, Brooklyn’s family was able to donate $871 from various fundraising efforts.

This year, they almost doubled their donation to East Central/Area 9 with a total of $1,570. Read More

North Suburban Cook/Area 18

Volunteering at Special Olympics a Tradition for Schwantz Family

Cook/Area 18 Spring Games were no exception. Amongst these volunteers were Austin Schwantz, a junior at Fremd High School, who recruited his fellow football teammates to help with set-up and tear down of Area 18 Spring Games at Prospect High School in Mt. Prospect.

Austin Schwantz and his football team at Fremd

Austin Schwantz and his football teammates from Fremd High School at the Palatine Polar Plunge

Austin is no stranger to volunteering. He helps coach the Blue Jays Special Olympics basketball team with some of his teammates who have siblings with special needs.

This winter he looked to expand his efforts. He wanted to further give back in a way that could also bond his team so he registered for the 2016 Palatine Polar Plunge. While they were reluctant at first, the football coaches helped to empower the team stating that if the team plunged, they would plunge, too. The Fremd Football went on to raise $3,000.

“The kids and coaches had such a great time, the coach is looking to making this a team event every year,” Austin’s mom, Brenda Schwantz, said. “It was all any of them could talk about for the next day.”

Volunteering is something Austin may have learned from his parents, Brenda and Jim Schwantz. Read More

Palatine High School Fundraiser Goes the Distance

On April 23, Palatine High School hosted Distance Night in Palatine – an event deigned to bring the best high school runners together from throughout Illinois and the Midwest while raising money for charity.

2016Area18-DistanceNight-0269Distance Night in Palatine is a unique fusion of elite distance racing, music and fun. Races included the 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter distances as well as an 800-meter race for Special Olympics Illinois athletes.

“This race allows us to celebrate the true meaning of competition – to run to the best of your ability,” said Chris Quick, Palatine High School English teacher.

Quick was inspired by his brother, Chad, who competed in wheelchair races and more through Special Olympics during his childhood.

“It is because of him that I chose to make Special Olympics the primary beneficiary of our event,” Quick explains. “Our goal is to bring both financial support and awareness to Special Olympics.”

The Special Olympics 800 took place right before the “Main Event” races later in the evening and the participating athletes received a warm introduction prior to running.

This year’s event raised $1,870 for the athletes of Special Olympics Illinois. Thank you to Palatine High School and all of those who participated in Distance Night for their support! Watch video of event.

Area News – April 2016


Chicagoland Areas

Career Training – Enrollment Open

Are you, your child or a loved one struggling to get a job – or even an interview?

Aspire, a local leader in providing bold and uncompromising services to kids and adults with disabilities and their families across Chicagoland, is seeking candidates for Aspire CareerLink.

Aspire CareerLink is an innovative job training opportunity that provides adults with intellectual/developmental disabilities and acquired disabilities, ages 18 and up, with the opportunity to receive intensive job training in the retail and warehouse distribution industries. Details:

  • Ten-week training program, meets 2-3 days/week
  • Specialized curriculum focusing on soft and hard skills
  • Individualized and group instruction in classrooms and in hands-on work environments that replicate the real-world
  • Inclusive training with industry partners
  • Ends with a two-week job internship at one of Aspire’s employment partners

More than 90 percent of Aspire CareerLink graduates have secured employment.

Groups are limited in size and are being formed on an ongoing basis. To apply for this exceptional training opportunity or to learn about trial sessions, contact Karen Phillips at 708-547-3560, ext. 3571. View flyer.

Area 3

Chicago Motor Activities Challenge Day

On March 24, more than 280 Special Olympics athletes from across the city of Chicago gathered at DeLaSalle High School to participate in a Motor Activities Challenge Day.

2016ChicagoMATP-KM5871The Special Olympics Motor Activities Training Program (MATP) is a motor and sport training program designed to meet the unique needs of those persons with profound disabilities who do not yet possess the physical and/or behavioral skills necessary to compete in official Special Olympics sports.  MATP has been developed based on the belief that all persons can participate in sport training at some level, and that sport participation is beneficial and can facilitate appropriate physical and social skills necessary to bring interaction with nondisabled peers in community settings. MATP emphasizes training and participation rather than competition and provides a way for persons with severe disabilities to participate in appropriate recreation activities geared to their ability levels.

Chicago athletes were able to test their skills at a variety of sporting activities including golf, powerlifting, gymnastics, basketball, soccer, athletics, tennis, volleyball and softball. All athletes received a challenge day medal and got to take pictures in a photo booth. More than 100 volunteer students from DeLaSalle High School supported these athletes and their energy and enthusiasm made this day beyond special for the participating athletes. View photos from event.

Thanks to GE, funds were provided to support the event and helped to provide unique equipment for each sporting station. Some of the equipment included a large putting green, enlarged Velcro target, balance stones and agility ladders. Coaches were excited to see the new equipment and commented, “Loved the activities. The equipment was great and the volunteers are awesome!”

Special Olympics is very thankful to DeLaSalle for its generosity and continued support of the Motor Activities Program and to GE for helping make this day extra special for the athletes. Coaches are eager for next year, saying “Just keep doing it, we love Motor Activities!”

Area 5

Kelly’s Hollywood Movie Premiere

Mark your calendars for 9:30 a.m. Saturday, April 30, for the Chicago premiere of “Kelly’s Hollywood” at the Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove.

KellysHollywoodIn this documentary movie, a brother’s quest to fulfill his sister’s dream of becoming a Hollywood diva takes an unexpected turn when it starts to threaten his engagement. Brian, an aspiring actor, leaves his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., in the hopes of making it big in Los Angeles. As the years pass, he misses his loving sister Kelly, who he left behind. Kelly, who has Down syndrome and still lives at home with their parents, wants to follow in her big brother’s footsteps, but is relegated to assembly line work and performing in her bedroom. To put an end to Kelly’s frustrations and to fill the absence of her in his life, Brian brings Kelly to Hollywood every winter to share in the dream. As Brian makes Kelly’s dreams a reality, his romantic relationships suffer as Kelly becomes increasingly jealous of his girlfriend. Faced with boundary ultimatums from his girlfriend and health complications of Kelly’s, Brian works to find balance between the two. But when Kelly’s health plummets, Brian desperately tries to fulfill her last wish of performing in front of a live audience. Will her wish become a reality? And will Brian’s own dream of marrying survive?

There will be a Q&A immediately following with director Brian Donovan. Admission is $5 and proceeds will benefit Special Chronicles, SEASPAR, Special Olympics Illinois, Community High School District 99 and Community Unit School District 201. If you’re unable to attend and would like to help support this event, click here.

Area 7

Love in the Air – Couple Engaged at Manteno Polar Plunge

Brad Hommes asked Steffani Vizdal to marry him at the Manteno Polar Plunge

Brad Hommes asked Steffani Vizdal to marry him at the Manteno Polar Plunge

Love was certainly in the cold air this Polar Plunge season – but particularly so at the Manteno Polar Plunge. For the first time in 17 years of Plunges in Illinois, a couple agreed to take the metaphorical plunge before they ran into the icy waters of the Manteno Sportsmen’s Club.

As Steffani Vizdal lined up with her team – Team Baymax – her boyfriend, Brad Hommes, knelt in the sand and popped the question.

Steffani first got involved in Special Olympics through South Suburban Special Recreation Association, where she has worked for the past nine years. When she’s not working at Special Olympics, Steffani works at a hospital in Chicago in the emergency services department. Brad works for a specialty golf club company in Tinley Park.

The couple share so many passions, but they take the most pride in is working with the Special Olympics. She met her now fiancé three years ago and they did their first Plunge together last year in Manteno. Read More

Area 9

SOILL East Central/Area 9 Honors LETR Fundraiser of the Year

Ruth Rhodes gets a foot massage after the 2016 Lake Sara Dam Run

Ruth Rhodes gets a foot massage after the 2016 Lake Sara Dam Run

Many people in Effingham County know the name Ruth Rhodes because of her years of dedicated employment to the law enforcement community. Yet, some may not be aware of just how much time, effort and support Rhodes provides to Special Olympics Illinois athletes.

Rhodes, a civilian employee for the Illinois State Police until 2013 and currently on staff at Illinois Department of Transportation, was one of the founders of the Lake Sara Dam Run and is currently coordinator of the event. She worked tirelessly to ensure the Lake Sara Dam Run’s success.

To honor Rhodes’ years of service in fundraising for the athletes of Area 9, she will be awarded with the first Area 9 Law Enforcement Fundraiser of the Year award at the Opening Ceremony of the 2016 Area 9 Spring Games on Friday, April 22, at Eastern Illinois University’s O’Brien Stadium. The Opening Ceremony starts at 9 a.m. and fans of Special Olympics Illinois are welcome to fill the stands to recognize Ruth Rhodes for her achievements and support the Area 9 athletes as they compete in the annual athletics meet. Read More

Area 18

Global Messenger Thanks Immanuel Lutheran Students

Matt Kaman with his mother, Beverly, and Jordan Feldman, Area 18 Director, who also spoke

Matt Kaman with his mother, Beverly, and Jordan Feldman, Area 18 Director

Special Olympics Global Messenger Matthew Kaman joined Immanuel Lutheran School students in chapel on March 30 to personally thank them for Immanuel’s support of the hospitality tent at Special Olympics Illinois North Suburban Cook/Area 18 Spring Games. He described how much he enjoys going to the tent each year.

Matt has been competing in Special Olympics athletics events for more than 25 years. He told students that he can’t imagine what life would be like without Special Olympics and that his participation has improved not only his physical health, but also self-esteem. He concluded his remarks by telling the children, “Thank you for making this an event that the athletes will remember for the rest of their lives. God bless you.”

Matt has been serving as a Global Messenger since 2001 and his first speaking duty as a Messenger was addressing ILS students in chapel years ago.


Retired Police Master Sergeant Can’t Stop Plunging


Retired Illinois State Police Master Sgt. Diane Vanderkooy is truly a trailblazer within Special Olympics. From handing out medals at Spring Games to raising money for the Law Enforcement Torch Run to jumping into Lake Springfield for the Polar Plunge, Vanderkooy shines at every event.

The Illinois State Police (ISP) became involved with the Springfield Polar Plunge in 2003. The ISP has 22 districts in Illinois and troopers participate in local Plunges throughout the state.


Vanderkooy’s team usually ranges from 10 – 30 members. In 2014, the team had more than 30 members participate in the Plunge. She is hoping the same amount plunge this year.

“There are usually 10 who sign up online, but the day of the Plunge, I have officers, friends and family of ISP appear out of the woodwork to plunge,” says Vanderkooy. “It’s always a surprise on the day of the Plunge for sure!”

In addition to the troopers who plunge, former students of Vanderkooy also take the chilly dip. Vanderkooy coached volleyball and softball at Little Flower where her students plunged with her and have continued the tradition into college.

“I am thrilled that even this year some have gone away to college and will come back to plunge with me again,” says Vanderkooy. Other Springfield schools that join her at the Plunge include Springfield High School, Illinois College, Blackburn College, Blessed Sacrament and University of Illinois at Springfield.

A unique thing about Vanderkooy’s team is the costumes. Instead of wearing a head-to-toe costume, she makes 30 “Freezing for a Reason” T-shirts and a themed hat. The team has worn “Cat in the Hat,” Olaf from “Frozen,” “Minions” and LETR hats with a bouncy heart on them.

This year’s theme has not been decided yet. “My grandkids have been shooting me some ideas that are promising,” says Vanderkooy.

Vanderkooy uses her relationships with her friends, family and co-workers to fundraise as well as her own Plunge fundraising website. She spreads the word with her church family where they donate funds to her before the Plunge. She created an online fundraising page for herself and one for the ISP team on the Polar Plunge website. The pages generate a great deal of funds for her teams.

On the day of the Plunge, Vanderkooy talks to the Knights of Columbus who help plan the Plunge and asks for donations. “I have established a wonderful relationship with so many Knights who have the biggest hearts for Special Olympics and are always happy to help if you just ask them,” says Vanderkooy.

Her advice to warm up after the Plunge is to “change into dry clothes very quickly with some warm socks!” After warming up, Vanderkooy attends the post-Plunge Party that includes a great band where attendees can dance with friends, family and athletes. Texas Road House and the Knights have hot food waiting for plungers.


Vanderkooy says “just trying to take it all in and being in awe of how many people are there coming together to do a very crazy thing of jumping into freezing cold water for a great cause.”

She introduces herself to as many people as possible with an athlete to the let the Plungers know who they are plunging for. Vanderkooy will take a picture of the athlete with a plunger in the costume so the plunger can revisit the picture and return the next year.

What keeps Vanderkooy returning every year? “I just can’t stop,” she says. “To make the Springfield plunge a little bit more successful each year and to work with so many amazing volunteers, athletes and their family is so rewarding, you get a rush!”

The team will be plunging again this year at noon Saturday, March 5, at Knights of Columbus Hall 4179 on Lake Springfield, Chatham.

If you are interested in joining “TEAM Illinois State Police” for the Springfield Plunge or want to plunge at any of Illinois’s 21 locations, visit


By Tyler Krivich, Communications Intern