Each person involved in Unified Champion Schools, and Special Olympics does it for their own reasons. They each have wonderful experiences that build up to this day, and this moment. What brings us together? The belief that everyone deserves respect!
Here are some stories from the members of the Unified Champion Schools Youth Activation Committee!
What’s your story?
My experiences and how I got to the position I am today is one of my favorites. It started in my freshman year of high school. At my school you are required to take 6 quarters of PE to graduate. I was chosen to be a part of the adaptive PE and from there the story begins. Today I have taken all four years of adaptive PE because it’s my beginning and favorite part of the day. My junior year I started to go to the teachers room to work with the students with disabilities instead of going to my study hall. Also my junior year was the first year that I was a key club officer and actually the first male key club officer. Then my teacher asked me to go with him to the YAC summit. From there everything boomed. I have realized that this is not only a passion of mine but also what I want to do for the rest of my life. I have never been so blessed in my life thanks to the amazing friends I have made. They are my other family and I am so happy I have this opportunity.
It has been fun to be a part of Unified Champion Schools. I enjoy playing Soccer, Flag Football, Bowling, and Basketball. I like helping my teammates and making friends.
I am a 15 year old Freshman. This year is my second year in YAC but my fifth year being involved with Special Olympics in general. Back when I was in fifth grade, I always had interest in working with kids, with and without disabilities. I fortunately got that opportunity and it started a love for working with kids that everybody labeled different, but I knew we were the same as me. As time went on, I started wondering what else I could do with my newly found passion. My teacher thankfully introduced me to the many Unified Sports that were available. My 7th and 8th grade year I played both Bocce and Soccer, and fell in love with it, which led me to apply for the YAC Committee where I am right now, and where I am planning on staying as long as I can. I would like to expand what sports I can play through Special Olympics so I can get a chance for my love to grow for Special Olympics. Also, with being accepted into the Committee, I have met a lot more people that share my passion and that try to involve Special Olympics into their everyday lives. Special Olympics has given me the opportunities that no other thing has given me. As long as I am able to participate in these activities, I will not throw away my passion for anything in the world.
In sixth grade my teacher came to my team and asked if anyone would be interested in helping students with special needs in PE (our tutorial). I signed up, not knowing that it would change my perspective on respect, on people, and on the world. I did it every Tuesday and Thursday and those days, turned into my favorite days. I met my partner and we had fun together, so I’m hoping he did. I don’t know if many people realize it, but adapted PE doesn’t just impact the athletes, it leaves a mark on the partners too, if not a bigger one. We left the gym every day knowing that we changed the world. Maybe not in the world’s eyes, but in our partners. We helped them do what they love. Just knowing that they were happy, was all of the thanks we needed. Nobody will understand how amazing it is, until they’ve done it themselves. I am doing this because I want to continue to spread respect and love to the kids with special needs. I love getting to work with them and I can’t thank God enough for giving me the opportunity to do so. They are the sweetest things in the world, people just have to be willing to give them a chance. My memories with my friends, and the memories that are to come, are memories that I will never forget, because the day I stepped into that gym, my view on the world, completely changed.
Check out our blog in the upcoming weeks to see more of our stories!
By Bruce Yentes; Reprinted with Permission of The Pantagraph
It was a “golden moment” all the way around, from the rays of sunshine bathing the Illinois State University track and field facility to the glistening winner’s medallion that hung from the neck of 16-year-old Rachel McGrew of Downs.
Shining brightest, however, was the light of love and an innate passion for the games reflected in the beaming faces of nearly 4,000 athletes at the Special Olympics Illinois Summer Games.
McGrew’s love for her late father, Buddy, spurred her to “go the extra mile,” doubling her usual race distance in remembrance of him.
While normally competing in the 200-meter run, Rachel claimed her medal in the 400 after knocking a full minute off an earlier time.
Just prior to the start of the race, as a means of motivation, Rachel’s mother, Sandra, got Rachel’s attention and pointed toward the sky.
“Before her dad died, he told her she could always find him in the sunshine,” Sandra McGrew said. “That’s when he would be there for her. Buddy suffered from cancer and we had him at home the whole time. It was a joint effort of all of us helping to take care of him.
“(Rachel) was so good about going in and just sitting on the bed with him and talking about her day. She can talk a blue streak. The closeness we all got to share in, probably the worst time of our life, made it not as bad as it could have been.”
“She got the rest of us through it. She has such faith, it humbles you and teaches you that life is so precious. We’re so lucky to have her,” said Sandra McGrew.
The family so believes in the power of Special Olympics that they asked that any donations made in Buddy’s memory be made to Tri-Valley Special Olympics. “Bud’s putting on a party this year at Summer Games,” said Sandra with tears in her eyes.
Rachel McGrew’s brother, Wesley, and mother, Sandra, cheer her on at Summer Games.
Buddy McGrew’s death on March 3 marked the second time in the past year that Rachel, a student at Tri-Valley High School, has had to deal with the loss of someone close to her. Brittany Woods, her best friend, died in June 2012.
Rachel has battled through the sadness and grief while continuing to be a strong contributor to her Tri-Valley Special Olympics team.
Glenda Walsh, Rachel’s track coach in the Tri-Valley program, said she wasn’t surprised to see Rachel claim a medal at Summer Games.
“She’s just been working hard,” Walsh said. “It’s just really her determination in doing this for her dad. That’s really been her drive.”
Sandra McGrew says the road to the Summer Games medal included some arm-twisting from Walsh that got her family involved in the program when Rachel was at Tri-Valley Elementary School.
“We didn’t know much about it at that point,” Sandra McGrew said. “You’re still kind of sheltering that little (then) 8-year-old and not wanting her to have to face the big world. We finally let go enough and Glenda then became the best friend my daughter’s ever had.”
Walsh was beaming alongside Sandra McGrew, both taking pictures, when Rachel accepted her medal during an awards ceremony.
“It was very exciting to watch (Rachel) do that,” Sandra McGrew said. “She aspires every year to try to win a gold medal, but is just as happy with a ribbon. She knows that it’s all about the competition and not winning and losing. But it will be hanging up on her bedpost as soon as we get home.”
Michele Evans Henson, SOILL Director of Communications, also contributed to this story.
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 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.
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 DON O’BRIEN; Reprinted with Permission of Herald-Whig
Seth Coons, a player with the Transitions of Adams County Stars & Stripes team, couldn’t believe his eyes when he showed up to his first soccer practice earlier this year.
Coach Jack Mackenzie gives instructions during practice in Quincy. (Herald-Whig Photo by Steve Bohnstedt)
A longtime fan of Quincy University soccer, Coons walked on to the field and saw longtime Hawks coach Jack Mackenzie getting ready to run practice. Now retired, Mackenzie had agreed to coach the team this year.
“I was just nervous,” Coons, 37, said. “He’s a good guy. He is working very hard for us.”
The experience of coaching the team is like nothing else Mackenzie has experienced in a coaching career that spans more than 40 years and includes nine national championships.
“I’m getting more out of it than I’m putting into it,” Mackenzie said. “I’m a real rookie here with Special Olympics. I’m at Peg 1 at the bottom,” he said.
The team competed at the Special Olympics Illinois Summer Games in June in Normal. Mackenzie’s 10-man crew was part of a delegation of more than 120 athletes from the West Central/Area 11, which covers Adams, Brown, Cass, Greene, Hancock, Pike, Schuyler and Scott counties.
Mackenzie, who retired from his QU post last August, was asked by Kevin Steinkamp, a local Special Olympics organizer, if he could help find someone to coach the older soccer team. The younger team is coached by Michael Nolinwinkler, but the older team needed a leader.
Jack Mackenzie coaches the Transitions of Adams County Stars & Stripes team at Summer Games. (Photo by Jeff Findley)
Special Olympics athletes have always had a place in Mackenzie’s heart.
“I’ve had Special Olympics teams introduced at halftime of Hawks games for many years,” he said. “Every time I see a challenged individual, I say a little prayer for them. I am very lucky to have six healthy children. I’m not doing anything now, so I said, ‘I’ll do it.’ ”
The team gathered once a week at the Paul Dennis Soccer Complex to work on their skills. Mackenzie put the players through the same paces he put his national-championship winning teams through. View video of team’s practice.
At the beginning, Mackenzie had a hard time getting the athletes to understand what he wanted them to do. “It was just a communication issue. I was using words and phrases that are part of soccer lingo that they didn’t use to describe moves and strategies,” he said. However, that soon was resolved.
The Special Olympics team has much in common with his college teams, said Mackenzie. “They are competitors and they want to win as bad as the college players. Everyone gives everything he has all of the time.”
The team is filled with characters. Brothers Keith and Brian Flesner wear the shirts of their favorite players on the U.S. men’s national team. Keith represents Landon Donovan, a star for the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer. Brian wears the shirt of DaMarcus Beasley.
“Do you know why they call me Donovan?” Keith Flesner asked. “I’m unstoppable. No one can stop me.”
The team’s goalie, Charles Strieker, says that Flesner isn’t quite telling the truth.
“I can stop anybody,” Strieker said with a smile. “I’m the only one who can dive. I can stop more than just (Flesner).”
The Quincy team prepared for Summer Games by facing teams from the Jacksonville area. Mackenzie says he has seen a lot of progress in the time they’ve been together.
“We are having fun and laughing and moving around and touching the ball,” he said. “The guys are very concerned about each other and help carry gear for me.”
Mackenzie didn’t originally plan to go to state with the team, but he changed his mind after coaching the team for a while.
“I made a commitment with these guys, and I’m going to see them through,” he said. “I come home from practice, and I am pumped. I go over and open the back of my van, and a couple guys help me carry stuff to the field. They are so good about everything. I love them. Everyone should have this type of experience.”
The team made Mackenzie’s trip worth it by winning the gold medal in their division.
Michele Evans Henson, SOILL Director of Communications, also contributed to this story.
Everyone has stories to tell. For the past two years, Mike Chmielewski of West Dundee has organized what he calls “the Buddy’s Outing.” Composed of 24 buddies and 24 athletes, the outing is an opportunity for Special Olympics athletes to golf with a buddy and share their stories with them. The outing was at Bartlett Hills Golf Club on May 9 from 1 to 4 p.m. They played nine holes of golf and enjoyed ice cream afterwards.
From left, Pat Prom, Francisco Vela, Ben Brizzolara and Mike Chmielewski at Buddy’s Outing.
“We have a lot of rules. The rules are: we don’t have any rules,” said Chmielewski. “It’s not about raising the money. It’s not about playing golf. It’s the interaction with the athletes. Most of the buddies really haven’t had the opportunity to interact with people with special needs. I just said “Listen to them, listen to their stories, talk to them. Don’t treat them any differently. They don’t want to be treated any different. You’re their buddy for the couple hours that we play golf.’ ”
In the two years the Buddy’s Outing has occurred, they’ve raised more than $4,000.
“Our goal initially was to help send an athlete, family, coach to the 2014 National Games,” said Chmielewski. He will be donating the money raised to Special Olympics to use as needed.
Chmielewski has his own golf buddy, Ben Brizzolara, who he’s been golfing with for about 10 years. He met Ben when his oldest daughter did community service for her high school, and Special Olympics was the organization she volunteered for at a district volleyball tournament. Afterwards, Chmielewski called Special Olympics and asked if they needed any basketball coaches.
Through the Buddy’s Outing, Chmielewski hopes his friends can have their own story, “their own Ben story.”
Athletes David Kelly and Dustin Dickens enjoy ice cream.
“We just have fun,” said Chmielewski about his time with Ben. “I think the only reason (Ben’s) my partner all this time is because I’m the only golf partner that after nine holes lets him go to Dairy Queen for ice cream,” he jokingly added.
After the outing, the buddies gave the athletes pins for the 2014 National Games.
“We’re not doing it for the recognition. It’s more about having fun with the athletes. It’s a lot of fun. I hope it lasts for 10 more years. It’s something the buddies look forward to. Afterwards, the first question out there is ‘When are we doing this next year?’ ” said Chmielewski.
Chmielewski has volunteered for Special Olympics for more than 10 years as a coach for basketball and softball in addition to golf. He has also participated in the Polar Plunge in Lake Bluff for the last two years. He has a Plunge partner, Rob Seymour, who does the Plunge with him.
“Somebody called and said, ‘I’ll donate $1,000 to the Polar Plunge, but I get to pick out the bathing suits (you and Rob) wear,’ ” said Chmielewski. “We just have a ball with it. As long as my heart is beating, I’ll be doing it.”