In 1968, Chicago gave birth to a new athletic movement when 1,000 athletes from the United States and Canada came to Solider Field to participate in the first Special Olympics Games. Now, 45 years later, there are over four million athletes around the world who participate in Special Olympics events in 170 countries. Special Olympics is the world’s largest program for athletic training and competition for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.
The 1968 games created the entire Special Olympics movement, and after those first games, the group of people that helped to fund them in Chicago created Special Children’s Charities.
“It was so new at the time, they knew that there was something incredible on the verge of happening and they created a legal entity and said, ‘We think that this entire program may go national,’” Special Children’s Charities executive director, Susan Nicholl, says. “And who knew that it was going to do what it has done, gone on to reach four million athletes, so that’s what Special Children’s Charities is. It’s the fundraising arm of the Special Olympics Chicago program.”
In coordination with the Chicago Park District, Chicago Public Schools and Special Olympics Illinois, Special Children’s Charities provides for year-round athletic training, as well as recreational and social programing for the children and adults who make up the membership of Special Olympics Chicago.
“We like to say that our athletes are athletes. They are just like any other athlete. They train, they set goals and they triumph, they experience injuries,” Nicholl says. “That’s what we’re hoping to do, just open some eyes and point out the similarities because our goal ultimately is to create a community of inclusion and acceptance for everybody. We’re just trying to create synergy among athletes to create a deeper Chicago community where athletes are supporting fellow athletes.”
In 2012, over 10,000 athletes participated in the Bank of America Chicago Marathon as charity runners, raising money and support for local, national and global causes. Special Olympics Chicago is one of the partner charities for this event and they are encouraging marathon participants to run the event in support of their fellow athletes with special needs.
In addition to participating in an event as a charity runner, there are numerous volunteer opportunities available for those looking to support Special Olympics Chicago. The organization puts on 22 competitions throughout the year, all of which rely on the assistance of hundreds of volunteers. These events provide a range of volunteer opportunities from event planning to cheering on athletes at the finish line.
The organization’s biggest event takes place in May, when 5,000 athletes from Chicago participate in an annual track and field competition. Earlier in 2013, Special Olympics Chicago put on a power lifting competition, a developmental swim competition and their annual Polar Plunge event. Held each year in late winter, participants in the Polar Plunge raise donations and take a swim in icy-cold Lake Michigan. Upcoming events include an aquatics competition and a basketball tournament in Normal, Ill.
“We find that when people engage with our athletes they see that there are so many more similarities than differences. People may never have interacted with someone with special needs before and it’s a life changing moment. From where I sit I can see that special moment happen,” Nicholl says. “It really creates a nice environment where people are touched and they see that our athletes are individuals that are just like them. We say that our athletes are great teachers if people would be open to the lesson that they can teach us which is: We have more in common than not.”