Athletes, Supporters Celebrate 50 Years Of Special Olympics
CHICAGO — Wearing a bulky black raincoat, winter hat and scuffed white sneakers, Amelia Hernandez stood at an imaginary starting line on the cracked asphalt walkway at Piotrowski Park in Chicago’s South Lawndale neighborhood on a recent spring morning, waiting for her coach’s cue.
“Ready, set, go!”
On command, Hernandez darted onto the path, swinging her arms and fixing her gaze on the finish line, determined to do her best.
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Hernandez, 61, who was born with intellectual disabilities, was part of the inaugural class of athletes who competed in the first-ever Special Olympics Games at Soldier Field in 1968. She has continued with Special Olympics every year since then, training several times a week at Chicago Park District parks, just as she did recently, when she practiced a 200-meter walk on a simulated track.
She was set to return this week to Soldier Field for the Special Olympics 50th anniversary Spring Games Opening Ceremonies, joining thousands of fellow athletes, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, who organized the 1968 event, and fans and supporters in a celebration of five decades of progress for people with disabilities.
Over the last 50 years, Hernandez has gone from an eager 11-year-old girl who was snickered at on the street and not allowed to go to a traditional public school, to a champion hockey goalie, boccie ball player, runner, weightlifter and fierce competitor in other events with hundreds of medals.
At the same time, society has made notable strides in accepting and accommodating people with special needs. The U.S. has adopted laws protecting people with disabilities from discrimination, implemented public school plans to offer students with special needs individualized education, and has begun to represent people with disabilities more often in movies and on TV.
“Things are so different now,” said Connie Hernandez, Amelia’s mother, who remembers the surprise — and relief — she felt when she began meeting other families with children with disabilities through Special Olympics in the late 1960s. “When I started taking her to the park, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’m not alone.'”
But organizers say the milestone year also is a time to emphasize that challenges remain for people with disabilities. Hernandez and several other inaugural athletes are living and competing much longer, without housing options that meet their needs. Advocates for people with disabilities also note that the state of Illinois ranks lowest in the country in its spending for people with special needs.
“It’s not over,” said Burke, who keeps close relationships with many of the athletes she first taught as a 22-year-old park district employee, and remains a Special Olympics supporter. “I see so many things that haven’t been done.”
Still, officials at Special Olympics and advocates for people with disabilities are proud that an event that began as a citywide track meet has grown to a year-round international program for 4.9 million athletes in all 50 states and 172 countries.
This year, Chicago’s Special Olympics Spring Games will take place May 7-11 at Dunbar Park on Chicago’s South Side with 4,000 participants. Representatives from the local games will go on to statewide, national and international competitions later this year.
Amelia Hernandez, the second of six children, didn’t speak until she was 5 years old and was prone to unpredictable outbursts. The family never had an explanation for the way the young girl, nicknamed “Mickey” for her mouselike size, behaved.
“I guess when children were born, they didn’t tell you when nothing was wrong,” said Connie Hernandez, 80, adding that even without a diagnosis, she could tell from early on that Amelia was not developing intellectually or socially like her other children. “When we walked down the street, people would jump back.”
When Amelia was old enough to attend school, her mother hoped she would catch up with her peers. But a few days into the school year, the teacher called and said Amelia was opening drawers, running around and refusing to come back inside after recess. She was no longer welcome.
Without other options, Amelia’s parents had to depend on family members to watch her during the days as they worked, Connie Hernandez recalled, her eyes filling with tears decades later.
In 1962, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the sister of President John F. Kennedy, who had already spent years promoting research and opportunities for people with developmental disabilities, revealed that one of her sisters had an intellectual disability. The public acknowledgment was a watershed moment that helped change the way Americans viewed and responded to people with special needs.
The Hernandez family was relieved when, as part of the movement, Esperanza Community Services, a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving people with disabilities, opened on Chicago’s West Side, offering classes in which Amelia enrolled.
Around the same time, Burke was hired as a physical education teacher at West Pullman Park on Chicago’s South Side with a $10,000 grant from the Kennedy Foundation to work with children with intellectual disabilities.
At first, it was hard to convince families so accustomed to keeping their children with disabilities away from the public eye to allow them to play sports, meet others their age and not be ashamed.
“They were very skeptical,” said Burke, who at times went door-to-door to persuade parents personally. “But they were so wanting their children to be normal.”
After two years of success working with people with disabilities, Burke proposed bringing athletes with disabilities from various park locations together for a citywide track meet. Her bosses suggested that she get in touch with Kennedy Shriver for support. In fall 1967, Burke presented the idea to Kennedy Shriver and immediately won her backing, with one condition:
The event had to be enlarged to include athletes with intellectual disabilities from around the country.
In the first Special Olympics Games 50 years ago, Hernandez, a cheerful young girl with a bob haircut and bangs, participated in the 50-yard dash and a baseball throw, taking home gold medals in both events. In the years that followed, she has tried almost every other sport offered by the Chicago program, from gymnastics to bowling, swimming and snowshoeing.
“I just kept going, and I didn’t stop,” said Hernandez, who keeps every medal she has ever won — there are now hundreds — in a box. “I feel so happy with these medals; I feel excited.”
Many staff members and volunteers for Special Olympics have stayed involved with the program for decades, as well, including 52-year-old David Donohue, who began coaching Hernandez 30 years ago and still holds the stopwatch for her at practices today.
Donohue said he loves watching people who are so often told they cannot do things beat the odds.
“My favorite part of the job is hearing, ‘I can’t do that,'” he said. “Then, when they’re getting the medal around their neck, ‘I’m like, what was that you said?'”
But he has been especially inspired by Hernandez, who has the same determination and focus today that she had decades ago, said Donohue, as he timed her race-walking across the pavement during her recent practice.
After she hustled down the path once, she looked up at her coach and smiled at the words of encouragement she has come to know well.
“One more time, Amelia. One more time.”
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