Summer Games

July 2018 View more

July promises to be a busy month for Oswego resident Katie Grisham, a regional director of Special Olympics Illinois. Not only will she be attending the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle, but the national organization is celebrating it’s 50th anniversary right in her Chicago backyard—Soldier Field was the site of the first international Summer Games in 1968.

As the world’s largest sports organization for people with intellectual disabilities—including more than 4.9 million athletes in 172 countries served by over one million volunteers—Special Olympics aims to transform lives through the joy of sport. The nonprofit offers year-round training and competition in 18 sports. Nationally, more than 23,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities, along with nearly 20,000 young partners without disabilities, participate in programs that enhance physical fitness and self-confidence with the support of family and the community.

Grisham’s local chapter, Region C, provides programming for people in DuPage, Kane, Kendall and West Suburban Cook counties. “Our mission is to provide meaningful experiences,” she says.

High school peer
Grisham first became involved with Special Olympics as a volunteer when she was a student at Waubonsie Valley High School, and now she has the opportunity to work with current student volunteers at her alma mater in Aurora.

“This summer I will be attending the Youth Leadership Experience at the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle with Emily [DeAngelo] and Abby [Widd], who both attend Metea Valley. It’s really a full-circle experience to be able to attend with an athlete and partner from a District 204 school where I started out myself,” she says.

USA Games’ sporting competitions will take place July 1 to 6. During a portion of that week, young adults—those with and without intellectual disabilities—will also convene to learn how to build more inclusive communities at the Youth Leadership Experience.

Locally, 19-year-old Widd acts as peer, or Unified Partner, to 18-year-old DeAngelo, who is an athlete taking part in track and field events. As well as coaching DeAngelo, Widd’s role is also to encourage her to socialize. DeAngelo just completed her junior year of high school, and although Widd graduated in May, she will be staying in the area to attend North Central College in the fall.

Like Widd, Grisham started her involvement with Special Olympics as a Unified Partner herself.

“I was a peer partner in gym class in high school,” she recalls. “I worked with an athlete who wasn’t as excited as maybe he should have been. He struggled. But one day I was holding his feet when I lost count of the number of sit ups he was doing and he complained. He had a vested interest because he wanted to acknowledge what he could do. In my opinion the peers get [as much or more] out of this than the athletes do.”

The Unified Partner, or peer program, has grown enormously since those days. Lombard-based Region C now helps 2,552 athletes between the ages of 8 and 80.

Although the program is thriving under her leadership, Grisham walked into her role almost by accident. She was applying for voluntary work at Eastern Illinois University when she found out the position was available—and she was hired straight out of college.

Now Grisham’s 11-year-old son Braedon is following in his mother’s footsteps, playing soccer in a Unified Sports team (students with and without intellectual disabilities) this summer.

Golden Anniversary
Celebrations for the Special Olympics 50th will take place from July 17 to 21. Events include the Special Olympics Unified Cup international soccer tournament at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, a Torch Run and Global Day of Inclusion at Soldier Field and a concert at Northerly Island. The soccer game will make history as the first live broadcast of a Special Olympics event on ESPN.

Grisham says that one of the most rewarding parts of her job is watching the athletes compete. “I love watching the competitive drive the athletes have,” she says. “I love watching them try to achieve something they have trained for, be it a medal or a personal best.”

For more information about Special Olympics Illinois and the anniversary events in Chicagoland, visit