50 for 50th Stories

Initial Reflections From A Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger


By Daniel Smrokowski | 2018-2022 Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger, Special Olympics

Two weeks ago, my friends and family at Special Olympics had the privilege of surprising me with BIG news.  In the opening segment of a bonus LIVE podcast we recorded from the Lombard Offices of Special Olympics Illinois, I sit to the left of Director of Communications & Media Relations at Special Olympics Illinois, Alex McMillan, and in front of the red Special Olympics 50th Backdrop, as Alex and Chief Marketing Officer at Special Olympics Illinois, Chris Winston, play the official video announcement from Dr. Timothy Shriver, Chairman of the Board of Special Olympics, selecting me for the prestigious class of 2018-2022 Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger. 

Tim announced me to be selected as a Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger (SSIGM).  I was speechless, for the first time, to be selected for this prestigious position.  I’m grateful and humbled to be selected as 1 of 10 athlete leaders, from a total of 80 of us who all had excellent applications to apply and a total of 5.6 million athletes in 172 countries.  In this 4-year position, I will spread the message of inclusion, the New Special Olympics (SO) Movement, and how every person, regardless of geographical boundaries, can Choose To Include and Join the Inclusion Revolution.

Just as SO is passionate about leading Full Inclusion beyond the playing field.   I’m looking forward to taking my athlete leadership to the next level.  As a SSIGM, I will lead the campaign for a more inclusive and accepting world for my fellow people with intellectual disabilities (ID).  Through my participation and leadership at world, regional, and local events, both internal and external of the SO Movement, I’ll challenge and change the mindset of political leaders, policy-makers, educators, employers, and society. My fellow SSIGM’s in our SO Movement, myself included, are redefining what it means to have intellectual disabilities.  During these next four years, I’ll travel the world reflecting on what it means to have special needs and what that redefinition can man to the mainstream community.

As I’ve been selected as 1 of 10 to become the face of SO globally, it’s a way to signal a shift to my fellow athletes as we are representing the Movement as leaders.  As a SSIGM, I’m very grateful to be part of this new class, 2018-2022, of athlete leaders and give the opportunity to showcase my extraordinary talents as a spokesperson, mostly at World Games, and demonstrate our unconditional love, enthusiasm, joy & determination that anything is possible–on the field and off the  field– when you never ever give up and how when you Choose To Include, the Inclusion Revolution can truly be a way of life.

Follow Daniel’s SSIGM Journey:  http://specialchronicles.com/ssigmjournal

Remember #ChooseToInclude:

Watch Daniel’s Reaction Video – Streaming Now and On Demand, Watch on SCTV:

Tune in to this week’s bonus podcast – Streaming Now and On Demand, Listen on Podcasts:

Touch of Nature – 50th Anniversary of Special Olympics Celebration


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.

Flynn Marshall’s Story | Down Syndrome Awareness Month


Written by Jay Marshall, proud Father of Flynn Marshall

October, among other things, is also Down Syndrome Awareness Month.  I have been writing a letter and sending it out on October 1st since 2000.  (I checked)  At that time, my first son, Flynn, was 5 years old.  He is now 23!  I have shared lots of information about Down syndrome over these 18 years. If you are interested, I hope you will set aside some time in October and maybe just see what you can find on your own.  If you get a chance and want to watch an episode of “Born This Way” on A&E Network, it is a great show and advocates for people with Down syndrome.

So here is an update about Flynn for 2018.  Last year he had just started attending Pioneer Center for Human Services in McHenry.  He is still attending there and loves it.  We have agreed that we can just call it his School, so that is what we do.  They have many activities through the week and he packs his own lunch and gets ready each morning with minimal help.  We do wake him up, but once he is moving he does very well.  Pioneer Center has really expanded their Special Olympics teams.  He has competed in Bocce Ball, Basketball, Bowling, Soccer, Track and Field, Volleyball, and Flag Football!  He certainly keeps us busy!  His Basketball team was able to play at Sears Center and we had courtside seats!  Bowling was in an Alley with 128 lanes all side by side!  He is still riding a horse at Main Stay Therapeutic Farm.  He is an accomplished rider.  GiGi’s Playhouse in McHenry started offering Speech Therapy last spring and he started sessions this year as well. So he is quite busy!

Flynn’s dog, Grace, that we got last year also keeps us busy.  She has not turned into his companion as much as she has turned into another member of the family, but he still enjoys her.  Flynn also watches out for the cats, which Grace likes to torment.  She is a very sweet pooch and we enjoy walking her and playing with her in the backyard.

Flynn’s greatest passion continues to be World Wrestling Entertainment. (WWE)  If you have any questions about anything related to WWE he would love to talk to you about it.  Thanks to Beth he now even has all of the wrestlers on his iPad which has a communication app that he can use to communicate.  He has been using it more since his speech therapy began.  It is very helpful because even though he knows ALL the wrestler’s names from memory, I don’t.  I was so proud of him when he used it to tell me about an upcoming match in the car a few weeks ago.  Beth and I are taking him to Monday Night Raw in Chicago next Monday.  He is excited, and I have to say I am looking forward to going since Beth has been in contact with one of the Super Stars via Flynn’s former Social Worker.

Thanks for reading.  Thanks for being aware.  Thanks for sharing the awareness.  I’ll just sign off with one request:  When talking about people with Down syndrome, remember to put the person first.  They are not Down’s people, or Down’s kids or Down’s babies.  They are people first so by saying people with Down syndrome, or kids with Down syndrome or babies with Down syndrome we put the person first and remember that they have more in common with all of us than things that are different.


Believing is Achieving


Stefan Xidas, Special Olympics Illinois athlete, and dedicated Cubs fan pursues his dream of singing at Wrigley Field with help from two lifelong friends. 


On Monday, September 10, Stefan Xidas’s dream came true. Stefan challenged Cubs Chairman, Tom Ricketts to allow him to sing the National Anthem at a game if he raised funds in support of Special Olympics Illinois. After continuous efforts, Tom Ricketts allowed Stefan to sing at a game, and the GoFundMe campaign took off – raising over $18,000 for Special Olympics Illinois. The Chicago Cubs matched the donation, bringing the total amount raised to over $37,000 for the organization.

Stefan has been involved in Special Olympics for the past 15 years. He enjoys playing tennis and has competed in singles for all 15 years of involvement. Stefan’s singing career began when he was 8 years old. Music was fundamental in Stefan’s childhood and has continued to have a strong influence on his life. 

The interest in singing sparked early on by Stefan’s neighbor and local voice teacher, Patty Lupo. She decided Stefan should learn how to sing the national anthem from a young age. She believed that if he could sing that song, he could sing anything. Performance after performance Stefan needed less of his voice coach’s help; he eventually grew to sing the song completely on his own.

From singing at local little league games to Major League Baseball games, Stefan got very good at singing in front of a crowd. So good that he was asked to sing the national anthem at U.S. Cellular Field before a White Sox game in 2005.

Stefan’s next goal was to sing at a Cubs game on Wrigley Field, and he did just that. Alongside Stefan, were his two lifelong friends, Tommy Molitor and John Rucinski. The boys helped Stefan create and organize the campaign.

Their friendship began in kindergarten. Tom and John befriended Stefan and they clicked. “They have blessed Stefan beyond belief, but the friendship was reciprocal,” Stan Xidas, Stefan’s father explained.

Tom, who is a videographer, suggested creating a video and a GoFundMe campaign in hopes that it would create attention around Stefan’s dream. Stefan and his family loved the idea. “It just kind of took off after we put it on Facebook,” Molitor said. “Everybody was really supportive of it. We got calls after calls from friends and family. Donations started coming in. It was tremendous.”

The campaign hit home with those who know Stefan, and even some who did not. Creating this campaign was so important to Tom, to be able to unify people through the love of sport, as Special Olympics does.

At the game, there was a group of about 100 friends and family members watching from the upper deck at Wrigley Field. Cubs fan and Special Olympics Illinois athlete, Stefan Xidas belted out the National Anthem before the game on Monday, September 10, 2018. “It’s been the best time I’ve ever had in my whole life,” Stefan added. 

Stefan never missed a note, as he stood proudly representing his country, his family, and Special Olympics. “Words cannot describe the crowd’s response when they heard Stefan sing, it was such a unifying moment,” Stan Xidas said.

“As a friend, it was just incredible to see over 100 family and friends up in the seats all in matching shirts to support Stefan,” said Tom. “I was shaking with tears rolling down my face; it was a once in a lifetime experience to be a part of.”

Stefan’s resilience and determination created his path to success. “You can be anything you want, you can do anything you want, as long as you put your mind to it,” Stefan said. When asked what his inspiration for all this was, Stefan confessed, “Two words, my dad.”