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

2016 SOILL Outstanding Athlete of the Year


Charles Dunn of Belleville has been named the 2016 Special Olympics Illinois’ Outstanding Athlete of the Year Award. He was honored at a reception June 10 before the Special Olympics Illinois Summer Games Opening Ceremony at Illinois State University in Normal.

The Outstanding Athlete Award recognizes a Special Olympics Illinois athlete whose achievements, dedication and commitment to their team and themselves exemplifies the purpose of Special Olympics.

Charles Dunn - CopyCharles has been involved with Special Olympics over the past 10 years. He competes in basketball, bocce, bowling, golf, softball, snowshoeing and track and field through the Southern Illinois Grasshoppers. He also volunteers and serves on committees for Special Olympics to make competitions and fundraisers a success.

Charles has been a crucial part of Special Olympics and is known throughout the community as a diplomat for the organization. Through his contributions, he has helped raise more than $75,000 benefiting Special Olympics Illinois Southwestern Area 12. He brings energy, enthusiasm and dedication to competing and volunteering.

Throughout his time with Special Olympics, Charles has inspired other athletes and coaches to get involved and make a difference in the lives of individuals with and without intellectual disabilities. His nominator said, “Over the past three years, I have had the privilege and honor to get to know Charles as a competitor, Global Messenger, Special Olympics ambassador and most importantly friend.”

Charles’ leadership and dedication to Special Olympics explains why Charles is honored as Athlete of the Year. He is always looking for opportunities to help and contribute to the organization.

Special Olympics Illinois is a not-for-profit organization offering year-round training and completion 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 at

2016 SOILL Outstanding Coach of the Year


Jennifer Hitt of Edwardsville has been named the 2016 Special Olympics Illinois’ Outstanding Coach of the Year Award. She will be honored at a reception June 10 before the Special Olympics Illinois Summer Games Opening Ceremony at Illinois State University in Normal.

The Outstanding Coach Award recognizes the coach who best demonstrates the true ideals of the coaching profession, who leads by example and expects athletes to set and strive to reach goals. As a coach of Special Olympics Illinois athletes, he or she must demonstrate both technical skills and personal commitment to the physical, social and psychological well-being of the athletes.

Hitt_Jennifer_IL_Gymnastics-RhythmicJennifer Hitt has been involved with Special Olympics Illinois as a coach and instrumental member of the gymnastics program for more than 16 years. In addition to her career as a coach, Jennifer has been a volunteer, certified training school clinician, a key event management volunteer and a Team Illinois and Team USA coach.

Jennifer’s dedication to Special Olympics has changed lives as she is skilled in identifying her athletes’ strengths and weaknesses. She has created individual practice plans and skill progressions to provide the highest quality instruction in order to determine what each athlete needs in order to learn and perform their best.

Jennifer initiated special needs gymnastics classes at the World Class Gymnastics Center in Belleville in 1998 and formed a Special Olympics team within the next year. She has positioned her gymnastics program to be based upon inclusion. The young members who train at World Class Gymnastics Center have grown up with her Special Olympics team and have welcomed athletes as their friends and training partners. Jennifer has set the bar for acceptance, comradery and teamwork.

All of the roles that Jennifer has so willingly taken on exemplify why she is so deserving of the Outstanding Coach of the Year Award. She has gone above and beyond to make a difference in the lives of her athletes as she continues to encourage acceptance and teamwork.

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 at

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.