Region H Stories Stories

A Special Olympics Christmas Story


Special Olympics Illinois has its own version of “A Christmas Story.” But this story has to do with a girl (two girls, actually), a horse and a Christmas surprise. 

It all started at about Thanksgiving time 9 years ago. Special Olympics equestrian coach Tom Walmsley of Decatur was attending a Ponies of America event in Florida. He was chatting with Bob and Sally Hurley of Macon, Ga., about a Special Olympics athlete he worked with in Illinois named Sarah Boys who loved horses and competing in Special Olympics equestrian competition.

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Sarah Boys and Stand Me Grand compete at the 2013 Fall Games in Rockford

Tom told them how courageous Sarah had been, going through more than a dozen surgeries for hydrocephalus (water on the brain) and cystic fibrosis, but always pushing herself to get back to training for Special Olympics sports – especially equestrian. Being around horses and her fellow teammates on the Dream Catchers team always made Sarah feel better.  Sarah also was a spokesperson (Global Messenger) for Special Olympics, inspiring others to do their best and never give up.

The Hurleys had an idea, but before they acted, they wanted to speak to their daughter, Anne, who was studying at University of Georgia and planning to go into veterinary medical research. They told Anne about Sarah and that she didn’t have her own horse. It just so happened that Anne had a leopard (spotted) pony named KS’s Stand Me Grand (SM for short). SM was not getting the attention he needed because Anne was so busy with her studies. They came up with a plan and called Tom, who thought their idea would be a grand Christmas surprise for Sarah and a wonderful dream come true.

Sarah SM

Sarah meets SM for the first time

A special transport – one that usually carries race horses – was called to the Hurley home and Stand Me Grand was ushered on board. Back at Rocky Lane Farm in Decatur, Tom Walmsley and friend Ken O’Hara were decorating a special stall with wrapping paper and bows, getting ready for the new arrival.

On Dec. 24, 2004, Sarah came into the barn to help feed the horses Christmas Eve treats when Tom, her parents Paula and Bill, and 20 of her friends and family said:  “Surprise!” and pointed to Sarah’s new horse – Stand Me Grand!

“She stood there for 10 minutes in shock,” Paula Boys said, in recounting the story. Since that time, Sarah and SM have become great friends as well as Special Olympics training partners, working on the various skills involved in competing in working trails competition.

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Sarah was maid of honor at Anne Hurley’s wedding

But that isn’t the end of the story. A few days after the Christmas surprise, Anne Hurley arrived in Decatur and spent three days with Sarah and Stand Me Grand. The two redheads quickly became “sisters.” In 2010, Sarah had a chance to visit Anne in Georgia – as the maid of honor at Anne’s wedding to Joel Bacon. Since then, Anne and Joel have given Sarah two more special gifts – a “niece and nephew.” The Hurleys are very much a part of the Boys family, keeping in touch every chance they get.

In October, Sarah and Stand Me Grand competed in the Special Olympics Illinois state equestrian competition along with many other members of the Dream Catchers team as part of Fall Games in Rockford. Her whole family was involved since her mom and dad are coaches for the team. Sarah laughed as she gave SM an apple and said, “He was my Christmas surprise 9 years ago, but my surprise for SM was to get him into Special Olympics! I think it has worked out great for both of us.”

Watch video of Sarah and Stand Me Grand from the 2013 Fall Games.

By Barbara DiGuido, Director of Communications

Springfield Athlete First in Illinois to Receive Free Hearing Aids Through Special Olympics Healthy Hearing


David Wargo, 49, of Thayer was all smiles on Aug. 6 when he received two new Phonak hearing aids at the office of Dr. Charles Swain at Springfield Clinic Audiology.

Audiologist Stephanie Born fitted David Wargo with hearing aids.

Audiologist Stephanie Born fitted David Wargo with hearing aids.

David is the first athlete in Illinois to receive hearing aids from Special Olympics Healthy Hearing and Phonak’s Hear the World Foundation. David had his hearing screened at this year’s Summer Games and was referred for follow-up, said Lindsay Bondurant, Special Olympics Health Hearing Clinical Director for Illinois.

Katherine Wargo took her son to see Dr. Swain for full testing and it was determined that he needed hearing aids in both ears. David had been wearing a hearing aid in his right ear since 2010, but the cost for two aids was prohibitive.

“His hearing has become worse in the past year due to his diabetes,” said Katherine Wargo. “He kept saying ‘Huh?’ when I was talking to him.”

“He’ll hear much better with two aids,” said audiologist Stephanie Born. “This will really help with sports and he’ll hear all the sounds from all directions.”

Born told David to wear the aids all the time, except when showering or swimming. “Now you can hear the coach,” she told him, adding that the aids would adjust the volume of sound by themselves.

“I’m so glad I sent him through Healthy Athletes,” said Katherine Wargo. “I don’t know what we’d do without Special Olympics. When we learned we were receiving these aids, we thought we’d never been that lucky,” she said with tears in her eyes.

Katherine and David Wargo thank Dr. Charles Swain of Springfield Clinic Audiology

Katherine and David Wargo thank Dr. Charles Swain of Springfield Clinic Audiology

The Phonak hearing aids come with a one-year warranty to repair or replace the aids, plus free batteries for a year. Bondurant estimated the value of the voucher at about $4,000.

“These are really good hearing aids, top of the line,” said Dr. Swain. Special Olympics Healthy Hearing presented Dr. Swain and Springfield Clinic with a Special Friend Award for helping David receive his hearing aids.

Special Olympics Illinois has been offering the Healthy Hearing initiative since 2010, when Bondurant came to Illinois from Pennsylvania, where she had been involved since2002. The Phonak voucher program has been available in Illinois since March and was piloted nationwide about two years ago.

Nearly 250 people received hearing screenings at Summer Games this year, a number nearly double last year’s participation. “Anyone (coaches, families, volunteers) who wants a hearing screening can receive one,” said Bondurant. The voucher program is available for athletes only.

Lindsay Bondurant, left, Special Olympics Healthy Hearing Clinical Director for Illinois

Lindsay Bondurant, left, Special Olympics Healthy Hearing Clinical Director for Illinois was happy to see David get his hearing aids

Bondurant, an assistant professor in Communication Services and Disorders at Illinois State University in Normal, said 25 percent of athletes don’t pass the screenings. “The incidence of hearing loss in this population is higher than in the general population.”

David and Katherine Wargo have been invited to talk at a Phonak reception in Chicago later this month to offer their thanks to the company and explain how Special Olympics has affected their lives.

David has participated in Special Olympics since 1982 and competes in six sports – cross-country skiing, bocce, volleyball, bowling, basketball and softball. He was named Special Olympics Illinois Athlete of the Year in 1994. “He has achieved so much through Special Olympics,” said his mother.

To transform the lives of athletes like David, donate now.Donate Today

By Michele Evans Henson, Director of Communications

Rocket Man – Jordan VanKooten Soars With Special Olympics


Jordan VanKooten, 15, a Special Olympics athlete from Pawnee (Area 17), has rockets on his feet. Before his races, he “prepares” his shoes by “lighting the rockets” on them. Jordan participated in the 100-meter walk and tennis ball throw at this year’s Summer Games. Before each throw, he would “light the rocket” on the ball.

Jordan VanKooten "lights the rocket" on the tennis ball before throwing it at Summer Games.

Jordan VanKooten “lights the rocket” on the tennis ball before throwing it at Summer Games.

Jordan became involved with Special Olympics Illinois just two years ago. His father, Kelly VanKooten, sought out information to get his son involved. He was directed to Auburn schools and coach Terry Szerletich.

“I wanted him to be active in something,” said VanKooten. “I’m a single dad with two teenage sons. (Special Olympics) is something my family can do together.”

VanKooten had the medical application done in record time, and Jordan got scores in for the 100-meter walk and tennis ball throw. Since then, he has participated in basketball skills, volleyball skills, and golf, in addition to his track and field events.

VanKooten is an assistant coach for the Auburn team and helps with the training of athletes. There are four athletes from Pawnee on the team. Jordan will be starting high school in the fall at Auburn with his fellow teammates. Jordan’s older brother, Dylan, assists at volleyball and basketball practice when he’s done with his football practices.

Kelly VanKooten hugs his son, Jordan, after receiving his gold medal for tennis ball throw.

Kelly VanKooten hugs his son, Jordan, after receiving his gold medal for tennis ball throw.

In just two short years, VanKooten has seen quite a transformation in his son.

“Before Special Olympics, (Jordan) was not a talkative, social guy,” said VanKooten. “Now he’s joking, laughing with the other kids on his team. He knows these kids are like him. There’s an attraction there that says ‘hey, you’re like me.’ ” Since becoming involved with Special Olympics, Jordan has grown both “socially and athletically.”

Jordan is on the autism spectrum and doesn’t react a lot to his successes, but his dad said he is “a serious competitor.”

“I can’t beat him,” said VanKooten, with a laugh. “If I challenge him by racing against him and being competitive, he’ll rise to the occasion. He wants to beat me.”

Jordan won gold medals for both his tennis ball throw and 100-meter walk at this year’s Summer Games. He has won 19 medals and two ribbons in his two years with Special Olympics.

“He loves Special Olympics,” said VanKooten.

“At volleyball skills last year, I happened to be near the awards area when Jordan got his gold medal,” Area 17 Director Darrin Burnett said. “He doesn’t say much, and he doesn’t react much, but there was a small smile and it felt like it lit up the entire room. He’s the kind of athlete that inspires you every single day.”

By Cassidy Obis, Communications Intern