NORMAL – When we were in grade school, we all sought to be considered part of the group of kids we had classes with. For some students, fitting right in happened almost immediately. But for kids with developmental disabilities, sometimes, those youngsters find fitting in difficult because other kids aren’t able to relate or made fun of them. But youngsters at Parkside Elementary School, through programs at Parkside Elementary School, are finding themselves fitting right in thanks to Special Olympics.

Parkside Elementary was named one of just four National Unified Champion Schools in the State of Illinois, celebrating the honor at an assembly in the school gym on Oct. 24. Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools program is an all-ages based program supported by the Federal Department of Education. A primary goal of the program is to motivate young people and give them tools, skills, and opportunities to help change their schools to have a genuine culture of inclusiveness, according to the national office of Special Olympics.

Unified schools have three main goals as set by Special Olympics: Inclusive sports; Youth leadership and advocacy; And Engagement in the program on the part of the whole school. At this assembly, Parkside Elementary was awarded a banner signifying the school’s commitment toward those goals.

In addition to the school’s 290 students, a number of former staff members and students who were part of the program in the past were invited to return to cerebrate receiving the honor. Also, a group of students who now attend neighboring Parkside Junior High School and were part of the program at the grade school in the past were invited to attend the celebration.

“It’s a tremendous honor for Parkside and we’re really proud of them,” stated Marty Hickman, Chief Operating Officer for Special Olympics Illinois, who represented the organization at this function. “They have exhibited all the things you would want a school to exhibit with regard to inclusion and helping students with intellectual disabilities to be part of their school community.”

A total of four schools in Illinois were receiving this honor and Parkside is the only elementary school in the State to claim the honor. The others are two high schools and a junior high school. There are a total of 400 schools Statewide which participate in the Young Athletes Program. Schools applied for the honor and needed to meet 10 excellence standards to qualify to be awarded the national recognition.

The program has been in place for 11 years, Hickman said, adding, “It creates an environment in this school where students with intellectual disabilities are more accepted, more included, and can have a richer and more full elementary school experience because of how they’re treated here.”

Fifth graders serve as peer coaches for students in Special Olympics’ Young Athletes Program, a program that involves students who are younger than age 8, explained Kathy O’Connell, Special Education physical education teacher at both the grade school and PJHS. The next step for athletes once they become 8-years-old is to be eligible to participate in Special Olympics programs and events. The Young Athletes Program has been available at the school for 13 years, O’Connell added.

O’Connell said students are taught lessons in the importance of respect toward people with disabilities. Because she teaches at PJHS, O’Connell sees the lessons at the grade school sticking with kids once they move on to secondary education. “They just grow up with it,” she said. “It just flows from one school to the other.”

To celebrate the accomplishment, the assembly’s audience included current and former students who have been involved in the Unified Sports Programs established at the school through Special Olympics, as well as hearing from some of those people.

Among the speakers were former athletes in both the Young Athletes or Unified Sports Program at the grade school. Eighteen year old Brandon Lake and his mother, Heather. Heather recounted for the audience that her son was a participant in the Young Athletes program starting at age five, and she has kept the first shirt he ever got when he entered the program at that time.

She admitted she was “an overwhelmed mama who was new to the world of disabilities” at the time she and her son came to see O’Connell about Brandon getting to be part of the program. For the Lake family, “Young Athletes Program line of Special Olympics events that Brandon participated over the years,” Heather Lake said. “But for me, personally, it marked a point in time where we were actually empowered to embrace our son’s strengths rather than his deficits.”

The assembly also heard from other parents and teammates in the Unified program who say they have learned from the experience.

Sean Foster, principal of Bloomington Central Catholic High School, also addressed the gathering, saying, “We are here to congratulate you on your accomplishment. It’s really important to have schools and organizations that partner together to help one another and serve one another. He noted that seniors at his school spend one of the last days of their high school career helping with the Young Athletes program. “By helping with this program, our students receive so much more in return.”

Before the program closed, Hickman spoke just before the banner with the national honor was presented. “I want you to understand not every school is able to be a national banner Unified Champion School,” he told the gathering. “A Special Olympics Unified Champion School has an inclusive school climate and exudes a sense of collaboration, engagement, and respect for all members of the student body and staff. “

With that, and after the presentation, school employees, members of the school’s Young Athletes Program, Special Olympics athletes, and coaches gathered around the banner as family and friends closed out the proceedings taking pictures with the newly-attained banner.

NORMAL – Twin brothers Luke and Brett Hanson discovered early on in life that they liked running. Whether it was for fun or in competitions, the two boys who will be seniors next year at Normal Community High School found they had an affinity for the sport. They further discovered that when they were an age they could become part of Special Olympics, they could show they had a skill which would potentially win medals for doing so.

And they’ve been doing it for a number of years now. This past weekend at Special Olympics State Summer Games on Illinois State University’s campus was no different. Luke took home a 6th place ribbon in mini-javelin, and gold in the 3,000 meter run. Brett took third place in the 1,500 meter run and third place in the running long jump. Together, the pair earned silver medals in the 4×400 Relay, where Brett led off the race for his team from Bloomington-based Special Opportunities Available in Recreation (SOAR), and Luke served as the team’s anchor man, running fourth.

Teams receiving gold medals at Area G Special Olympic Spring Games in April, held in East Peoria, qualified to compete at State Summer Games.

“It helps that I start because I’m fast,” Brett Hanson explained. And running as the last part of the relay helps him, Luke added.

“It’s so exciting to watch them run,” said the twins’ mother, Lori Hanson, who along with husband, Greg Hanson, appear to enjoy watching their sons compete. “This is just an extension of another track activity the boys have.”

That extension is that Brett and Luke are members of the cross country team at their high school, Normal Community High School. They were also on the track team for the three years they were at their junior high school, George L. Evans Junior High School, as well. In fact, at NCHS, they have a set of twins coaching the track team. That would be brothers Tom and Dennis Patten.

The guys say they also enjoy being part of NCHS’ “Run Club,” a type of warmup to getting ready for the track season. In cross country, their mother added, her boys finish at around the 20 minute mark.

Lori Hanson said she hopes her boys, who have been involved with Special Olympics since they were 8-year-olds, will be able after high school to join a run club within the community to be able to continue their pursuit of running for just the enjoyment of it.

When the twins got involved in Special Olympics, they took to running competitions almost immediately, their mother said. “It’s always been running,” Lori Hanson said. “They put them in just doing the short distance runs, and as they got older and stronger, and got more stamina, they just started running long distance races.”

The Hanson boys say they have gotten numerous compliments from runners from other schools for how well they compete. “It makes my brother and I feel good inside,” Brett Hanson said.

“They have a lot of energy and a lot of endurance,” said the Hansons’ track coach, Julie Smith, who is a volunteer track coach for SOAR. SOAR is funded jointly by the Parks and Recreation Departments of the City of Bloomington and the Town of Normal.

Smith said the twins’ cross country activity and their parents’ encouraging being active have contributed to why the boys do as well as they do on the track. “Plus, they are naturally athletic, being lean muscular runners.”

Track events are but one of the events more than 4,000 athletes and Unified Partners competing in 6 different sports were able to participate in. They were joined by 1,600 coaches and 2,000 volunteers to make to make the event a success, as roughly 3,300 family members cheered for their athletes. Competition was offered in athletics, bocce, Unified bocce, gymnastics, football (soccer), powerlifting and swimming (aquatics).

Steve RobinsonIn the world of Special Olympics, family is a component of athletes’ lives that receives a high ranking along with all the things it’s dedicated to teach them: Teamwork, sportsmanship, a sense of belonging, some individual skills, and self-worth.

But at many of these events I’ve covered over the years, the parents, grandparents, and siblings come out but sometimes, not as much, any of the siblings’ friends to share in the experience.

Another thing that is missing at Special Olympics competitions that so-called “normal” sporting events have is cheerleaders. This was, after all and for all intent and purposes, a high school basketball game. When was the last time you went to a high school game and there were no cheerleaders?

With regard to that aspect of the event, Rachel Roth, a senior at El Paso Gridley High School, may have started something March 17 at Horton Field House on Illinois State University’s campus. Roth talked a few of her fellow EPG cheerleaders into coming out to cheer for EPG’s Special Olympics Basketball team during their run for a title.

Roth is the sister of Jordan Peacher, a member of EPG’s team which was making its second appearance at State Basketball. She brought her friends to cheer on the Titans against their first opponent, Rushville Special Olympics.

That meant EPG senior Maddie Morrison, and juniors Lacey Kiefer, and Kailyn Waldemar, all of whom cheer for EPG on sidelines at football and basketball games, would put their skills to use cheering for another Titans team. Morrison said the girls, “figured ‘why not?’ because the joy that the sport brings to Jordan and the other players is greater than anything else we can do for them. It’s just a small act and it lights up their world.”

That meant EPG’s team, and head coach Cindy Martorana and her troops were very happy to see the foursome shaking pompoms and lending encouragement when needed during their first game. EPG team members are: Peacher, Andrew Hartman, Zoey Slightom, Caleb Turner, Brady Neill, Geneva Powell, and Courtney Adkins.

“Jordan and his teammates have talked about coming to State for weeks,” Morrison said. The team qualified for State at District competition, held at Illinois Wesleyan University’s Shirk Center in January. Morrison said the Special Olympics team members were the ones who planted the idea of having the cheerleaders come to the State Tournament. After the girls agreed to come, Morrison added, team members would say to them when they saw them in school hallways, “Can’t wait to see you!”

“I think I will get joy from seeing this team’s faces light up when they see us at their game,” Kiefer added. “I think it’s just awesome.”

For Waldemar, her experience with Special Olympics came earlier from knowing a cousin who once participated in one of its programs.

Peacher’s Sister Helps With His Basketball Game Skills: Roth said the four siblings in her family, including Peacher, regularly shoot hoops in a local park. In addition to Roth and Peacher, they are joined by an older brother and a younger brother. The foursome spends that time bonding and helping Peacher bolster his playing skills.

As a result of that practice, my brother has excelled quite a lot,” Roth said. And Peacher has returned the favor by attending EPG football and basketball games, to watch his sister and her fellow cheerleaders while taking in Titans games.

What the girls who shook pompoms and cheered got out of this surprised me. Not because of what one of them said but because what she said didn’t seem to take any prodding from the questions I asked (sometimes, for teens of any age, the thought is there, it seems, but the wording isn’t, but it eventually comes forward with a little guidance).

But Morrison had the exact thought for the situation: “This experience we get out of this is greater for us because it gives us a whole different perspective on how to look at life.”

“These athletes take the smallest event and for them, it’s big,” Morrison said. “For us, it’s just the experience of coming here and seeing them happy.”

And after Saturday’s double overtime 38-36 win over Rich Township Saturday at Shirk Center to win their division’s championship, you’ve never seen a happier bunch of players and family members.

As a result, everyone got something out of the experience.

BasketballBLOOMINGTON – El Paso Gridley High School’s Special Olympics Basketball team, having made it to the Special Olympics Illinois State Basketball Tournament March 17 and 18, came away with a first place medals and a team trophy for their efforts, needing double overtime March 18 to defeat Rich Township School District’s Special Olympics team, 38-36.

EPG’s tallest player is Brady Neill, at six foot tall. The rest of the squad range between five foot and six foot tall. Rich Township had three players who were at least six foot tall making them at least a head taller than most of EPG’s squad, and looked to have the upper hand by halftime. EPG found themselves down 10-8 after one quarter and 20-12 by halftime. But by the end of the third quarter, the Titans finally managed to outscore Rich Township 10-8 in the third quarter to pull within six, 28-22 to open the fourth quarter.

From there, EPG’s noted defensive wall and some man-to-man opposition to Rich Township’s drives to the basket only allowed Rich Township to score one bucket in the final quarter while EPG tallied eight points. As a result, when the final buzzer sounded, the game needed an overtime, tied at 30-30. Andrew Hartman’s layup with 48 seconds left in regulation coupled with a pesky defense led by Neill and Jordan Peacher, getting in the way of opponents trying for a last shot with the clock winding down forced the need for the extra period.

Both teams exchanged two baskets each in the first overtime, leading to the period ending with a 34-all tie, forcing the second overtime. Hartman scored twice in the second overtime to lift EPG to victory and their second consecutive first place finish in State Basketball. For his efforts, Hartman scored 26 points in the contest, scoring that amount for the second day in a row, having done it Friday against Rushville.

“They did it, and I knew they could,” said head coach Cindy Martorana following the hard-fought victory, reflecting on the effort her team put forth. . For sportsmanship, among other reasons, referees awarded Peacher a “Spirit Of The Game” honor from this contest.

“I like to score points,” Hartman said calmly after the championship game. He said playing against a team with bigger players “was a little hard but we took our shots and we won.”

“We weren’t concerned that we might not win,” explained team member Courtney Adkins.

Team Gets Prep Rally And Sendoff Local Police, Fire, EMTs: But earning first place wasn’t the only perk Martorana’s team got to enjoy before the tourney even started, according to one player’s parent.

Jackie Peacher, mother of Jordan Peacher, explained the team got a sendoff for State Basketball befitting of any team going for gold or a championship. She said that sendoff to State included a pep assembly at the local elementary school in Gridley so those kids could share in the experience.

Special Olympics IllinoisAt the high school, students lined the hallways, the team passing through a gauntlet of well-wishing classmates on their way to waiting vehicles. All of EPG High School’s students gave the team members high-fives, explained Natalie Adkins, mother of EPG team member Courtney Adkins, who is an EPG High School senior this year. That was followed by El Paso Police and Fire Departments giving the team an escort from town, complete with lights and sirens, to Route 24, on their way to I-39, where they would begin the drive to Normal.

“I was happy and excited to see it,” Andrew Hartman said. He added his mother has the event on video to treasure the moments.

Jordan Peacher said he saw people standing outside the local Casey’s General Store waving as the caravan went by. “I saw them outside there and so, I rolled down my window and waved back,” he said.

“It was very, very cool,” Natalie Adkins said. “We do it for our other athletes that go to State. And to do it for our Special Olympics team was very cool.”

“I thought it was really wonderful,” Jackie Peacher said of the experience. “The school does that kind of thing for the other athletes when their team goes to State. It was great that the community got together for our Special Olympics team. It was just amazing.”

Titans Start Tourney With Win Over Rushville Special Olympics: The Titans opened the tournament at Horton Field House on Illinois State University’s campus with a convincing 64-22 victory over Rushville Special Olympics. The Titans scored 16 points each in the first two quarters, leading 16-4 in the first quarter and 32-16 by halftime. The Titans added to their point production in the third quarter, outpacing their opponents, 12-6, in the quarter to a 44-20 lead going a fourth quarter where they demonstrated a 20-0 run en route to their first victory. Andrew Hartman a “Spirit Of The Game” honor. Andrew’s parents are Samantha Hartman, and Alfred Della Hartman.

Andrew said receiving the award “makes me happy.” Alfred Hartman, his father, said, following the team’s first tournament game. “We’ve been going to the park to shoot hoops when the weather’s nice.” Since his son has been involved in Special Olympics, he added, his son has shown some leadership on the court. Andrew’s mother, Samantha, added, “Andrew is awesome and he did a great job today.”

Steve RobinsonTo say El Paso Gridley High School’s Special Olympics basketball team got off to a rocky start while still seeking their first win on the court is an understatement. In the middle of their inaugural season in 2015, the team got into last year’s district tournament due to another team’s forfeit. But the Titans lost their only State Tournament game – in fact the only game they had last year.

This basketball season had been a bit of a rocky matter for head coach Cindy Martorana’s troops, too, as they entered the Ron Knisley Memorial Shootout, part of the State Farm Bloomington-Normal Holiday Tournament. Knisley was on the Holiday Tournament’s organizing committee starting in 2002 and brought the idea of incorporating a Special Olympics tournament into the larger event, known to many as The Classic.

After Knisley died from cancer in 2005, The Classic’s organizing committee renamed the Special Olympics event The Ron Knisley Memorial Shootout. A few years ago, they added a second day to it. Doing that helped the number of teams participating double from eight to 16.

The 2016 Knisley Memorial Tournament is the first one EPG has been a part of. And they were doing it to try to get out from under a losing record, a discouraging 0-5. They entered the Knisley Shootout knowing they would play against two more-established teams. “We’re very good kids and we play hard,” said EPG player Jordan Preacher.

“They’re learning about competition and that we can’t win all the time,” said Martorana, who coaches the team with an assistant who was, at one time, also an EPG alum who played on the school’s boys’ basketball team, Carter Tria. “We’ve had to show our players that improving is our win.”

The players on the team range in age from sixth grade to a high school junior. They are: Zoey Slightom, Andrew Hartman, Caleb Turner, Brady Neill, Geneva Powell, Courtney Adkins, and Preacher.

Martorana said she wants the community to know that “my athletes play and practice as hard as all other athletes. They are just as dedicated to their sport as well. They are truly wonderful athletes and I’m very lucky that I have these athletes and their families to work with because they are all so wonderful.”

Some of the additional support the team has received has come from a place one might not think of immediately, and in an unusual form, too. EPG Freshman/Sophomore team coach Justin Kissinger said he sends a few of his players to Martorana’s team practices “to help out and work with her team and help my team get involved in the community.”

Doing that, Kissinger said, “allows my players to get a chance to give back and realize that life isn’t all about basketball, but it’s about helping others and making a difference in the community they’re involved in. Once they’ve done that, my players have gone back to help out there again.”

Before pitching in to help EPG’s team, Kissinger’s team members did the same volunteering to help teams from Special Opportunities Available in Recreation, or SOAR, co-funded by the parks and recreation departments from both the Town of Normal and the City of Bloomington.

Special Olympics Illinois had managed the Knisley Shootout before his death up until 2012, but handed it over to Bloomington Parks and Recreation in 2013, the result of time constraints faced by Special Olympics Illinois’ home office in Normal. Maggie Rutenbeck, who oversees competitive events for SOAR, now manages the Knisley Tourney.

Rutenbeck said getting in two games on a regulation college basketball court on the ground floor of Illinois Wesleyan University’s Shirk Center, complete with officials refereeing games and giving the players the feel of a tournament “is a great experience” for all concerned.

Lori Slightom’s daughter, Zoey, plays on EPG’s Special Olympics team. Zoey has been involved with Special Olympics since she was a 4-year-old who became active with Special Olympics’ “Young Athletes” program. “In addition to basketball, Zoey has done bowling, and track and field,” Slightom said of her daughter’s activities.

“For my daughter to be able to participate and succeed in something is amazing,” Slightom added.

And as wonderful as the team’s support is appreciated, EPG was still looking for a win as the tourney opened. In their first game, the Titans found themselves facing the Blue Rhinos from Pekin Park District-supported Illinois River Valley Special Recreation Association.. The Titans still found themselves in search of a victory, however, after that game, due to a 37-23 loss. But I can tell you there was no giving up on the part of Martorana’s players.

In EPG’s second “Knisley” game, Martorana’s charges had a bit of luck come their way against a team known as the SOAR Unicorns. After beginning the game trailing the Unicorns, 10-8 after one quarter, EPG exploded, outscoring their opponents in the second half, 26-0, on the way to a 34-10 first victory.

EPG celebrated the win at lunch following the game and now looks forward to a district playoff game Jan. 22 at Shirk Center. If EPG wins a gold medal at district, they would advance to the Special Olympics Illinois State Basketball Tournament held March 17-19 at both Shirk Center and Horton Field House on Illinois State University’s campus.

EPG’s patience for a win paid off and now, in about three weeks, Martorana’s team will try to conquer their next challenge: To win again so they can get back to the State Tourney. Here’s hoping that their luck continues.