Illinois plays a prominent role in the history of the Special Olympics movement. The organization’s first major competition was held in Chicago in 1968. Special Olympics now has programs in every U.S. state and in more than 180 countries. Since 1977, Illinois State University has been home to the headquarters of Special Olympics Illinois and the site of that organization’s annual Summer Games and State Basketball Tournament.
Each year more than 21,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities participate in programs associated with Special Olympics Illinois. The organization also serves more than 11,000 children ages 2-7, with and without disabilities, through its Young Athletes Program.
Approximately 1,500 athletes come to the Bloomington-Normal community for the annual State Basketball Tournament each spring. The Summer Games, the organization’s flagship event, drew nearly 4,000 athletes and 2,500 volunteers to the Illinois State campus in June.
“Athletes come from all counties across Illinois to participate in the Summer Games,” said Dave Breen, president and CEO of Special Olympics Illinois. “It’s really an inspiring sight to see Hancock Stadium full of athletes, family members and volunteers during the opening ceremonies. The Summer Games are a very popular event and we get a great deal of support from Illinois State and the local community.”
More than 900 service agencies across the state provide athletic training and help to stage competitions in different communities throughout the year. Thousands of volunteers, including many law enforcement officers, contribute their time and efforts to make it all possible. Locally, McLean County residents and Illinois State faculty, staff and students volunteer at the athletic competitions and at the Special Olympics state headquarters.
“We particularly appreciate the support of Illinois State students,” said Breen. “We have student athletes, members of registered student organizations, special education majors, MBA students and many others helping us out in a variety of ways. The students also learn a great deal through their volunteer experiences.”
Breen began as a volunteer with Special Olympics Illinois while earning a degree in park and recreation management at Illinois State in the 1980s. “I was taking classes in therapeutic recreation at the time and I really got hooked,” he said. “I remember being very inspired by the determination and drive of one particular athlete during a basketball game. He set a great example and I decided I wanted to stick with the organization. Once you volunteer at a Special Olympics event, you’ll be hooked.”
Arlene Hosea, director of Campus Dining Services, can also attest to being hooked on the experience. She began her association with Special Olympics Illinois in 1990 while helping to provide food service for the Summer Games on campus. She now serves as the Illinois State representative on the organization’s board of directors. “I have a real commitment to this sort of work because I have family members who have intellectual disabilities,” said Hosea.
Since joining the board last fall, Hosea has continued her work as a volunteer at the Summer Games, has participated in Polar Plunge fundraising events in Bloomington and Joliet and had the honor of opening this year’s State Basketball Tournament. For her, being a strong advocate for the Special Olympics mission is one of the most rewarding parts of being a board member. “I encourage others to participate in the events and give of their time,” she said. “It’s a wonderful experience and you get a lot in return.”
By promoting understanding, acceptance and inclusion, Special Olympics has played a key role in the evolution of how society treats people with intellectual disabilities. “We provide a platform through sports that allows the athletes to advocate for themselves,” said Breen. “Special Olympics athletes have a wide range of abilities and achieve a great deal through athletic competitions. Most importantly, they’re taken seriously.”
The words of the Special Olympics athlete oath sum up the organization’s worldwide mission: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”