Linda Rinchiuso couldn’t help noticing how patiently her son, Jimmy, sat during his older brother Charlie’s baseball and basketball games. But because Jimmy was born with Down syndrome, Rinchiuso wasn’t sure her little boy would ever have the chance to compete like his brother.
"You knew he just wanted to do it," says Rinchiuso, an Elk Grove Village mother of three. "At home we have a basketball hoop and he’d play with his brother, so even though he’s not very verbal yet, we got the idea that he wanted to be involved."
When Jimmy turned 8, he got his chance. He joined Schaumburg School District 54’s Special Olympics program. Now 9, Jimmy has competed in basketball, softball, floor hockey, gymnastics and soccer.
"In our downstairs, we have a wall of accomplishment and our older son has so much up there. Now Jimmy does too," Rinchiuso says. "And Jimmy’s having so much fun. If he could do Special Olympics every day he would."
While many local school districts offer Special Olympics, District 54 has made Special Olympics and the district’s mentally disabled children a top priority.
"Every parent should have the right to cheer their child on," says District 54 Superintendent Ed Rafferty. "This is the same opportunity for parents of kids without a disability, and it’s an authentic opportunity."
When the district began its Special Olympics program 10 years ago, about five children competed, says Mike Sroka, a Special Olympics assistant in the district and crisis intervention assistant at Frost Junior High School in Schaumburg.
This year, 68 Special Olympics athletes ages 8 and up compete. Another 350 children are part of the district’s new Young Athletes program, which prepares 3- to 7-year-olds to compete when they turn 8.
All these efforts culminate in a districtwide Special Olympics competition in May, followed in June by the Summer Games in southern Illinois, where thousands of children compete. This year’s national games—the first ever—are in Iowa in July.
Learning more than sports
These games create athletes but they are about much more than sports training.
Special Olympics give the children as well as their parents opportunties to be social, to succeed, to hone physical skills that will build their bodies and to experience the camaraderie that comes with competition.
For some children, the Special Olympic regional and state competitions are the first time they are away from family, eating in restaurants and staying in hotels with friends, like any other elementary or middle school student.
"Special Olympics is not just for the sport, it’s the interaction," Sroka says.
He remembers 8-year-old Daniel Lyford, who wouldn’t leave his mom’s side for his entire first season in the Special Olympics.
Daniel’s mom, Dianne Botefuhr of Schaumburg, remembers how overwhelmed her son was when he started. Daniel loved to run, but his autism spectrum disorder and sensory difficulties made it tough for him to be in a loud, crowded gym.
The first time he went to track and field practice, he screamed and clung to his mother.
"But we wanted to get him involved because he has an older brother involved in sports and I felt [Special Olympics] would give Daniel a good opportunity," she says. At his first meet, Daniel was competing in the softball throw and his mom wasn’t sure what would happen—Daniel didn’t know how to throw a ball. But he did it anyway and the ball traveled one inch. Daniel won first place and his mother was ecstatic.
Daniel is now an eighth-grader at Frost Junior High School and, in addition to his Special Olympics sports and trips, he competes on Frost’s cross country and track teams.
"This has helped him so much. He’s learning to throw and run, and it has brought him out socially," she says. "Since Special Olympics, he can go out and function like a normal kid in an environment with thousands and thousands of kids."
Helping each child
But it’s not just the athletes who find ways to go above and beyond. Jennifer Marcello, the district’s Special Olympics coordinator, says the volunteers often find themselves looking for creative ways to help the kids work around physical or mental impairments to become athletes.
Marcello recalls what happened with Kyleen Fabry, an athlete in a wheelchair, who after several surgeries on her legs found she could no longer dribble the basketball. Marcello would hold her up and race around the court while Kyleen dribbled, but the spunky eighth-grader wanted her independence.
So, Marcello asked a friend, a pediatric physical therapist, to help. He designed a square metal frame on wheels to hold Kyleen up.
"The first time we put her in there, I was sure it wouldn’t work, but she was so excited and is absolutely independent now," Marcello says.
"You want them to succeed. You push them to be the best athlete they can. That’s your job as a coach. This was a chance to help her be independent."
As far as Marcello is concerned, succeeding—but not necessarily winning—is everything. It’s the attitude of the Special Olympics. Children compete at their level and everyone receives an award for trying.
"Our mission is sports, but that’s not the only thing they get from this. When they come in here, these are their friends," Marcello explains. "They’re socially at the same level and they’re comfortable with each other. They don’t fight with each other. They’re just genuinely kind kids.’’
And while the workouts give athletes a chance for socialization, their parents get a chance to socialize.
Parents who go along on trips have an often unprecedented chance to relax with other parents who truly understand what life is like raising a disabled child.
"It actually gives the parents a break to sit there and watch and enjoy," says Linda Rinchiuso. "And when they compete they stay in hotels with their team.
"What a great break for parents to even just go out for dinner and know [their children are] well cared for." (Coaches and volunteers work round-the-clock shifts in the hotels to make sure none of the children wanders away or has any problems.)
Starting athletes young
This year the district expanded its Special Olympics offerings with the Young Athletes program—one of only 12 pilot programs in the world. It is funded by a one-time $5,000 grant from Mattel Corp. used to provide equipment and train the district’s special education teachers.
The program’s future depends on whether the district can find enough funds for it to stand on its own.
Marcello visits the 14 schools that participate in the district’s Young Athletes and breaks down athletic skills step-by-step so the children can master the art of throwing a ball or jumping and running.
The schools’ special education teachers attend with their classes, and work on the skills Marcello teaches in between her visits.
During a recent class, Marcello teaches the children how to throw and catch balls. She asks the children to remove their right shoe to show them how to lean back on one foot and then rock forward to throw the ball.
"By taking their shoe off, they could feel where their foot was and they could plan out their motor skills," says Jennifer Mursu, a special education teacher at Blackwell School. "Many special needs kids have problems with parts of the body, and they have more awareness of their body when it’s pointed out to them."
The class is conducted in four different languages, and the district’s special education teachers translate using sign language for the deaf children in the group. The children are given special easy-to-grip balls that will give them a better chance at success as they progress through the steps of throwing and catching.
"We have gross motor time every day with these kids, but initially it was open-ended and the kids just ran and threw balls," says Mursu. "With Special Olympics, our staff and kids have more awareness and focus."
For the district competition, the Partners Clubs (see sidebar) help with the event, and parents of both disabled and nondisabled children, as well as many schoolchildren, cheer on the athletes.
"We have the meet at Eisenhower Junior High [in Schaumburg] and the partners are all there and their parents are there," Rafferty says. "Our nondisabled kids are cheering them on. How do you put a price tag on this?"
Benefits are priceless to this family
When Jim Sommerer looks at his 9-year-old son, Matt, he doesn’t see a disabled child, he sees a world of possibility. But he admits it hasn’t always been easy for him and his wife, Ann, of Hoffman Estates. Matt was born with mosaic Down syndrome, as was his sister Jessica, who’s 18 months old.
The first few years of Matt’s life, Jim says, he tried to believe there was nothing wrong, even though he knew that wasn’t the case. Then his family got involved with the school district’s early childhood and Special Olympics program and started hearing about all the things Matt could do, instead of what he couldn’t.
In the past year with Special Olympics, Matt has competed in track and field; he recently went to an overnight state basketball tournament with his team.
"It’s good for kids to be involved in sports, and with Special Olympics we didn’t have to make any special adjustments," Ann says. "The kids want to be a part of things and this has been a very positive experience."
"Even in today’s society, [special needs] are taboo, but kids with special needs are no different," Jim says.
But Special Olympians do differ from other athletes in one very positive way, Jim says. "The best is, if anyone scores, they all cheer, even if it’s the other side."
The social aspect of Special Olympics is the most important part to Matt, but it’s just as important to his parents. "We’ve gotten to meet other parents and we don’t have to worry about things—Matt can make lifelong friends here," says Ann.
"We get to meet parents with kids Matt’s age and older and younger and you get to learn and ask, ‘How did you handle this?’ It’s a great way for people to get together who probably never would meet," Jim says. "I’m not the only one dealing with this. Sometimes you feel alone, but you’re not."
And sitting in the bleachers cheering for his son is everything Jim hoped for when he first became a parent. "I think every father’s dream is for his son to be an athlete. You want the best for them," Jim says. "To see the expression on his face when he dribbles a basketball—it’s priceless."
How to get involved
This year the Special Olympics USA National Games will be held for the first time, with athletes from 50 states competing.
The athletes have been chosen, but the organization says it’s a great place for a summer outing where you can volunteer as a family or just go to cheer on athletes.
When: July 2-7
Where: Iowa State University, Ames and central Iowa area
Sports: aquatics, athletics, basketball, bocce, bowling, golf, gymnastics, power lifting, soccer, softball, tennis, volleyball, motor activities program
To volunteer: Visit www.2006nationalgames.org or call (515) 598-5600.
The Illinois State Summer Games are June 16-18 at Illinois State University in Normal and the organization needs volunteers there as well. Visit the Web site at www.soill.org or call Special Olympics Illinois at (630) 942-5610.
Partnership puts friendship first
The benefits of Schaumburg District 54’s emphasis on children with disabilities extend to nondisabled children in the district. The Partners Club, an extracurricular activity at most of the district’s elementary and middle schools, pairs disabled and nondisabled students. The children play games, do crafts, share snacks and spend time getting to know someone who’s not like them.
The Partners Club students at Frost Junior High recently spent an afternoon building wooden bird houses together. Seventh-grader Mary Pittaver admits she was nervous at first at being with the disabled students.
"I didn’t know how they’d be, but I joined because I wanted to know the kids with disabilities and make them be happy," Mary says. "It’s good knowing them now and seeing that they’re like normal people."
The Partners Club’s benefits extend beyond their twice-a-month meetings.
"I’ve seen friendships develop," says Mary Reynolds, a special education teacher at Frost who also heads up the school’s Partners Club. "You see the partners come in shy at first and suddenly they’re friends and treating them like anyone else. There’s totally more acceptance."
And while the disabled children receive many benefits, often those who work with them receive even more.
"One of the students said, ‘My favorite place is Partners Club, because no one makes fun of me here.’ And that was one of the partners, not the special needs kids," Reynolds says.
Liz DeCarlo is associate editor of Chicago Parent and mom to Anthony, Emma and Grace.