As the familiar Olympic tune filled the Health, Fitness & Recreation Center gym, a cardboard torch the size of a small child made its way between groups of competitors smiling with pride. This is the 35th year of the Special Olympics being held at Moraine Valley Community College on Nov. 1.

Over three decades ago, the Illinois Special Olympics asked if the college would partner with the Special Olympics Motor Activity Program, which works with people who have profound and severe disabilities. As a young adjunct professor at the time, Donna McCauley, professor/coordinator of Recreation Therapy and Recreation Management, was part of the crew who melded the partnership. This type of event wasn’t done anywhere for this population, and Moraine Valley had space in the Building G gymnasium.

“It started small. But over time we changed competitive events to open doors for more athletes to participate. I’ve reached out to our education department to help. We have more space, and now it’s being recognized because it’s not done anywhere else in Illinois,” McCauley said.
Athletes from agencies within the college’s district that provide services and programs to people with profound and severe disabilities are invited each year, and area high school students are asked to volunteer because each athlete needs at least two aides to get around each station. Although there are 15 competitive events, such as modified basketball, hockey, dancing, or pushing a bean bag off a table, athletes partake in only five at most and only ones that accommodate their functioning level.

“You see the range of disabilities here. But things they can’t do at school, they can do here. It’s an amazing, wonderful event. The athletes cry on the bus and are emotional with their medals, which they show off at school. They’re part of something. You see the joy on their faces just from coming here,” said Margie Pilarski, a special education teacher from Lemont High School, who accompanied a team of athletes.

Students from McCauley’s Therapeutic Recreation Programming class also help run the event. Each year, former students return and volunteer because of its impact.

“I took her class last year and worked this event, but I volunteered again because I like it so much. It’s a good experience, and you get completely involved helping the participants,” said Moraine Valley student Michelle LaBuda of Evergreen Park.

Every athlete receives a gold medal at the end of the afternoon, and everyone goes home happy.

“It’s the highlight of my whole year. I’m still so excited after all these years. When you can set the stage to give people the opportunity to give back to those less fortunate, I don’t know what’s better. It’s a wonderful partnership. We’re giving to a wonderful group of people who aren’t given a lot from their communities. When there’s a day that can honor them, that is so cool,” McCauley said. “You know you had an impact when you put a medal on an athlete, and they smile. The nonverbal expression is all you need. Sometimes that’s all they can do. It’s a contagious event to bring joy and happiness to these athletes.”