Region J Stories Stories

Justin Dunning to Receive 2020 Illinois Outstanding Young Persons Award


Justin Dunning of Special Olympics Illinois- Region J has been selected as one of ten honorees for the Illinois Jaycees Outstanding Young Persons awards program.

The Outstanding Young Persons (TOYP) program annually recognizes young people throughout Illinois who excel in their chosen fields, endeavors, and show a great commitment to their respective communities.

“This award is particularly special to me; nevertheless it speaks volumes about the people around me. I pride myself in finding great people to surround me, ones that will always be willing to step in and lend a hand,” said Justin.

Like Justin, the Jaycees are dedicated to making an impact in communities. As an award honoree, Justin will join an elite group of men and women. The Illinois TOYP program started over 50 years ago and has continued to recognize perspicuous men and women across Illinois.

“In very early conversations with Justin, it was clear he had a passion and desire for serving individuals with special needs. His love for sport and dedication to that sport were early indicators he would be very successful in our organization,” said Dave Breen, President, and CEO, Special Olympics Illinois. “Justin has shown a true talent for bringing teams together to better serve the Special Olympics athletes in Region J and the State of Illinois.”

Justin is being recognized in the category of Humanitarian and/or voluntary leadership. His work at Special Olympics Illinois has made him an excellent nominee for the Illinois Outstanding Young Persons Award.

Justin has been a part of the Special Olympics Illinois family for seven years. His devotion and passion during those seven years have helped spread the mission of the organization not only to his local community but also statewide. 

 “This award is just a combination of all our efforts leading to an impact in the community. I am truly blessed and honored,” said Justin.

More information can be found at

Saneatha Trice Breaks down Barriers Beyond Sport


Saneatha has been a participant with Special Olympics Illinois through PTOEC since 2014. She began in gymnastics and quickly added bowling, swimming, softball, volleyball, and basketball. We quickly realized how athletic she was and how sports became her passion. But her love of sports was not what caught our attention. Saneatha almost instantly became a social being amongst her peers making friends quickly from near and far, which was something I never thought possible since she has always been someone who stays to herself. 

Saneatha has quite the collection of medals from the past few years of competitions. She has been to state competitions in Bloomington for Gymnastics and Basketball, Decatur for Softball, and Rockford for Volleyball. Her most memorable moments were from 2018 and 2019.  During this time, she participated in the Belleville Polar Plunge, Summer Games, Outdoor Sports Festival, State Basketball, and Fall Games. She also participated in Gymnastics at the 2018 USA Games in Seattle, WA bringing home 5 gold medals! Saneatha met a tremendous amount of people during her stay at USA Games from celebrities to other athletes to many fans. I remember telling her to hold on to these moments and cherish them because it would probably never happen again. However, just a few short months after returning home we received a call inviting her to the 2019 World Games in Abu Dhabi as a level 4 gymnast for Team USA!

Traveling to the Middle East was never on her bucket list, but Special Olympics Illinois, once again, found a way to show her what she was missing. During this trip, Saneatha and the rest of Team USA left a few days earlier than families to learn and enjoy the customs of Dubai and Abu Dhabi before having the jitters of competition. It was this trip that made everything come together for us as parents and her as an athlete. As we sat at Opening Ceremonies watching the parade of athletes from all around the world, I finally realized my child who has struggled with acceptance, learning, speaking, socializing – this list can go on and on – is truly happy on the inside and out. She walked in that parade like she owned the place! During awards, she was thrilled to just be there, but when the last medal was announced for her division she began to cry. She realized she placed 1st in the world in the Vault competition. She received 3 bronze, a 4th place ribbon, and her Gold. This was her moment along with thousands of others.

During the fantastic and unbelievable year of 2018, Special Olympics was also celebrating its 50th year anniversary. Saneatha wanted to go to Chicago for the event, but we were unable to attend due to the hectic schedule the year brought us and USA Games just days before the 50th celebrations. We still celebrated within ourselves and said a silent thank you to the young lady this wonderful organization has helped her become. We now look at sports as a way for people to come together, lift others up, and celebrate the victories of life instead of dwelling on the defeats.

-Samantha’s parents, Robert and Tara Edwards

The Revolution is Inclusion- both on & off the Playing Field


National recording artist, Allen Stone performed during the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games Opening Ceremonies, in Seattle Washington. There he put on an unbelievable performance for the athletes of Special Olympics. The opening ceremonies kicked off the week of competition for the Special Olympics athletes competing at USA Games.

Saneatha Trice, a gymnast, began competing in Special Olympics in her home state of Illinois in 8th grade. Saneatha competed in the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle, Washington. Gymnastics is a passion for Saneatha’s. She has competed all over the country and revels in the opportunity to meet new people and compete with athletes from across the globe.

After the performance, Stone invited the athletes of Special Olympics to join him at one of his tour dates across the country complete with meet n’ greet passes.

Saneatha attended one of Allen Stone’s concerts. The experience was nothing short of an inclusive experience for Saneatha and her family. When they arrived Saneatha and her family was guided to a line for a special meet n’ greet with Allen. There she reminisced with other Special Olympics athletes who also competed at the 2018 USA Games. 

After the meet n’ greet Saneatha and fellow athletes made their way closer to the stage, where they found themselves welcomed by everyone around them. The group spent the entire concert together dancing and having a great time.

The program has given Saneatha so much more than an athletic ability to compete on a national level. Special Olympics has given her the opportunity to form relationships on all levels of her life. She has gained the courage to try new things and open herself up to new experiences and opportunities.

When faced with situations that may require some of that courage she has garnered from years of competing, Trice said, “I have learned to tell myself, ‘I can do this,’ instead of, ‘I can’t.” Saneatha says, “Now I love to try new things!”

For 50 years, Special Olympics has been building a movement to break down barriers – on and off the field. Allen Stone, national recording artist, and Saneatha Trice, Special Olympics Illinois athlete, display inclusion, passion, and courage in all aspects of their lives.


Special Olympics Illinois Unified Partners Attend Global Youth Leadership Forum in Baku, Azerbaijan


120 youth leaders with and without intellectual disabilities were selected to attend an inclusion-focused forum in Baku, Azerbaijan from September 24 to September 28, 2018. The Special Olympics Global Youth Leadership Forum was one of the flagship events to mark the 50th Anniversary of Special Olympics. Six delegations attended from North America- Illinois, Florida, North Carolina, Colorado, Wyoming, and Arizona.

Special Olympics Illinois was pleased to be represented at the Special Olympics Global Youth Leadership Forum by Special Olympics Youth Leaders, Patrick, and Zackary of Edwardsville, Illinois. Patrick and Zackary were joined by Jillian Schneider, Assistant Director of Youth Initiatives at Special Olympics Illinois, David Wiant, Speech Language Pathologist and youth mentor, and Adam Garrett, school Special Education Director.

Patrick and Zackary’s high school experience has been shaped by their involvement in Unified Sports and their role as leaders in their school’s Key Club. During high school orientation, their Key Club – which brings together students with and without intellectual disabilities – disseminates information about Unified Sports to the greater school community and invite other students to join.

To Patrick, “the future is so bright with Unified Sports and I look forward to helping it grow even further.” The adults in the Illinois delegation emphasize the importance of empowering youth as leaders of the inclusion revolution. Ms. Schneider, who oversees the Unified Champion Schools program across Illinois, believes that “the more we can encourage our youth leaders and help them grow, the better our leaders will be in the future.”

The Forum saw many young leaders, joined by an additional 100 adult leaders; from around the world to create more inclusive communities in their home countries. The youth leaders developed projects in Baku that will be implemented in their home countries in the months after the Forum. These projects are supported through grants from Special Olympics International.

During this trip, the group heard from a panel of speakers, including Tim Shriver, Chairman of Special Olympics; Special Olympics staff, sponsors, athletes, and unified leaders from around the world.

The panels spoke on a variety of topics, the power of Unified Sports, the importance of getting involved as a youth leader, Unified Sports theory, as well as driving the Inclusion Movement into the future. The sessions were followed by Unified group activities such as Unified sports demonstrations, group dinners with native cuisine as well as Azerbaijani dance performances, and cultural emersion experiences for all in attendance.

Following the Forum, the boys returned home and combined their training with their shared passion for inclusion to help recruit new students for their Peer Program and Unified Sports. Patrick and Zackary decided the project the will implement will be a regional Unified Sports day at their High School. They would like to host the event in Edwardsville and invite both Middle Schools and High Schools from their region to come out and experience what Unified Sports and activities have to offer. Their end goal is to get 10 schools in their region signed on as Unified Champion Schools and participating in Unified Sports in no more than five years.

Jillian Schneider took away a great deal from the experience. “The experience cultivated inclusion and leadership for the youth leaders at the Forum. The youth leaders had an opportunity to learn not only from the influencers but also from each other as peers.”

The trip was filled with new experiences and left everyone involved motivated to foster inclusion moving forward. The group gathered for one purpose, to make our world more inclusive, by doing so we must start with our youth leaders.

Just Give it a Try: A Lesson in Courage and Resiliency


Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’”

Saneatha Trice is a young woman that personifies Roosevelt’s words in every way, and approaches all pursuits in her life courageously and without fear. Trice, a gymnast, began competing in Special Olympics in her home state of Illinois in 8th grade, and will be competing the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle, Washington.

Saneatha Trice on the balance beam. Photo by Tara Edwards

Trice has not always been the fearless, high-flying gymnast that she is today. When asked about how she felt before her first Special Olympics competition Trice said, “I was nervous because of the crowd.” She added, “I was also very anxious because it was my first competition. I thought it lasted forever.”

She has competed all over the country through USA Gymnastics, and revels in the opportunity to meet new people and compete with athletes from across the globe. Trice attributes much of her comfort competing at a high level to meeting friends in competition from Florida to Costa Rica.

Aside from being queen of the balance beam, Trice also loves to bowl, play softball, volleyball, basketball and swim, but gymnastics holds a special place in her heart. When asked about what she loved most about gymnastics Trice said, “I love learning new vaults. When I am learning a new vault, I get to land in the ‘pit,’ which is awesome.” She went on to say, “I also get to show my mom my new tricks and it scares her,” which she said with a smile from ear-to-ear.

A lesser-known fact about Trice is her love for anime cartoons. Traveling for Special Olympics can be grueling, and watching some of her favorite anime on her phone has become her favorite pastime.

Saneatha Trice on the uneven bars. Photo by Tara Edwards

In this world we all need heroes that we can look up to. Trice finds heroic qualities in her mother, father, coaches and teachers. To cope with the nerves that come with competition Trice said, “I just look for my mom and dad. I forget about the rest of the crowd because I have to listen to my coach and my parents.”

Trice also explained that gymnastics, like many other activities in life, takes determination and resiliency. When asked about some of the most important lessons she has learned since she began competing she said, “I fall off the balance beam a lot. My coach has taught me [that] I have to get back on it until my routine is done. I can’t give up.” She added, “ I have also learned it’s okay to not always get 1st place.” Trice also stated that she enjoys seeing her friends and competitors get 1st place as well.

Aside from gymnastics, competing in Special Olympics has motivated Trice in various other aspects of her life. Most recently, the lessons learned from her years in Special Olympics has helped Trice deal with the frustrating world of mathematics. Though she may struggle, Trice said, “I don’t like math and I have to keep trying over and over until I get it right.”

Saneatha Trice on the balance beam. Photo by Tara Edwards

We can all learn a thing or two from Trice’s approach to events and activities that we may find intimidating or difficult. She recently participated in the Polar Plunge in Belleville, Illinois on March 9, 2018 where Special Olympics athletes raised money for the over 40,000 competitors at Special Olympics Illinois.

Trice has also recently received her learner’s permit and is excited to get behind the wheel. When faced with situations that may require some of that courage she has garnered from years of competing, Trice said, “I have learned to tell myself, ‘I can do this,’ instead of saying, ‘I can’t.” She went on to say, “Now I love to try new things, even if I don’t do it right the first time.”

For all those who struggle with a fear of the unknown, Saneatha Trice has a message for you. She says that you simply need to do your best to get over your fear. She also said, “Don’t think about people around you; just focus on the work in front of you.” She added, “I would tell them they can do it and to just give it a try.”

“Just give it a try.” Now that has a nice ring to it.

Jerry Shumway is a graduate student in the Strategic Communication Master of Arts Degree program at Pepperdine University.