Sunday, June 8, 2008

Illinois Special Olympics

Next weekend we'll be at Special Olympics of Illinois Summer Games (SOILL) in the Bloomington/Normal area.

SOILL has been celebrating 40 years of "... year-round sports training and competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities by giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy, and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community."

I have an amazing connection to this organization as my one and only cousin has served as a Special Olympics Global Messenger and a member of the Board of Director of SOILL.

My cousin, Sarah, was born almost 30 years ago with a multitude of medical issues. She lives with Cystic Fibrosis, Cerebal Palsy, Diabetes and other cognitive challenges. We were told that she would never walk, talk, see, or hear.

Every step of the way, she defied every limit placed upon her. Children born with Cystic Fibrosis (CF) often succumb to the complications of their disease in their early twenties. Sarah is nearly 30. She was taught sign language as a toddler because it was thought that she could not hear.

I read the stories of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan and spent lots of time with Sarah learning sign...she taught me how to sign the words for colors and what we saw in nature...grass, trees, street, road....

She can hear just fine and her voice is loud and clear. When the doctors and physical therapists said she'd never walk without the aid of a walker or braces, she promptly tossed her walker aside and started playing softball.

I knew I'd be a teacher and learning sign language was pretty cool when I was a teenager. So, I decided to pursue a career as a Teacher of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing at Northern Illinois University. Sarah is nearly 10 years younger than I and our education certainly coincided.

As I progressed through my studies and learned about special education rules and regs, my cousin moved through the educational system in her hometown. My Aunt and I would talk on the phone about ways for Sarah to receive a quality education that was appropriate for her. I taught her what I new about IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) and what she could and should ask for so that her child would be successful.

Throughout Sarah's years, the Special Olympics organization has been a large part of her life. My Aunt and Uncle, avid softball players, started teams for other exceptional children. They became "go-to" people in their community when a little (or big) one entered the local special needs community. There are several other well know and well funded organizations that turned their back on our family and failed to help when help was desperately needed. They've worked as advocates for developmentally delayed (DD) adults in their home town and work to include adults of all ages and abilities in their endeavors.

My Aunt and Uncle are both very much working class parents. Neither has the luxury of a college education; both suffered from cut-backs and lay offs at the hand of more than one employer. (My Uncle is a Viet Nam vet. He lost much of his hearing as the result. I've got a really great story about FBI agents smashing their front door down while only my cousin was home...The Patriot Act at its finest. Seems they had the WRONG guy after all that surveillance.)

I attribute my active involvement with the national hemophilia community to the work I witnessed my aunt do in the 70s and 80s for her own child. Neither one of us knew what we were getting into when we started, but we learned along the way.

Two Christmas' ago, my cousin was given a horse. Actually a Pony. "SM" (that's his name) and Sarah have an amazing relationship. She's ridden SM in equestrian events throughout the Midwest and they also have allowed other exceptional children to ride SM in Special Olympic and other events through our area. What's really cool is that horse riding is medically therapeutic for individuals with CF! It's been a win-win situation.

So, now that we are back in Illinois and closer to family, we have the good fortune to participate in Special Olympics Illinois. There's really nothing like it.

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