Jessie Hudson loves being a coach. And for her, it’s not about the competition or the athleticism, and it’s not about wanting to win. It’s about the smiles on her students’ faces when they run or pick up a ball – smiles that show their joy in just being allowed to play.
For more than 20 years, CPS special education teacher Jessie Hudson has been a coach with Special Olympics – an international movement that works to empower young people with physical and/or intellectual disabilities through the joy of sport. Special Olympics was founded in Chicago in 1968, so it is no surprise that CPS enthusiastically supports the program. With 2,500 students participating, the district’s Special Olympics athletes represent more than 125 schools and compete regularly throughout the city.
A resource teacher at Beidler Elementary in the Garfield Park neighborhood, Jessie Hudson was recently awarded the Coach of the Year Award at the 2012 Special Olympics Coaches Conference – an announcement that came as a shock. “I couldn’t believe they called my name,” said Hudson. “I never expected it, but it was marvelous.”
Hudson, who had to be encouraged by her fellow coaches to get on stage and accept the award, compared the moment to her experience when she sang the Star-Spangled Banner at Wrigley Field. As a young woman in the 1970s, Hudson was invited by Cubs legend Ernie Banks to sing the National Anthem at a Chicago Cubs game. Banks had heard her singing at a sports banquet sponsored by the Boys and Girls Club and was impressed with her voice. “It felt just like that, the same kind of thrill, and feeling so honored and privileged,” she said.
Hudson’s devotion to special needs children stretches back nearly three decades to a time when she was teaching in a parochial school and received a Golden Apple Award for her approach to special education. She joined the faculty at Beidler Elementary in 1991, and within a year was heading the school’s Special Olympics program. “The kids are so enthusiastic,” she said. “They want to start practicing on the first day of school even though we don’t compete until May.”
Athletes from Beidler typically compete in the Special Olympics Spring Games, which include such sports as baseball, basketball, track and field, and tennis. Hudson, who coaches all of these, is a loyal supporter of the program. “It’s an amazing experience for the athletes, the coaches, and the spectators,” she said. “Special Olympics tells the world that yes, these children have disabilities, but they are truly special kids.”
According to Hudson, the positive impact that the games have on her special needs students cannot be measured. “Special Olympics gives them a chance to spend time with other kids who are just like them,” she said. “It opens them up to new experiences and makes them feel proud of themselves.”
Equally important to Hudson is the program’s impact on the larger world, as she feels that Special Olympics has the power to unite people, particularly in a school setting. “It is the tool that brings special ed and general ed students together,” she said. “It opens up lines of communication between them and sheds a totally new light on special needs kids.”
About 10 years ago, Hudson began inviting general education students from Beidler to accompany her team to the Spring Games in the hopes that it would knit the two groups together. Ever since, a bus of general education students has come to cheer on their peers in Special Olympics every year, bringing a true sense of inclusion to Beidler. “It’s a sight to see,” said Hudson. “The kids always come to cheer us on, even in the rain.”
Hudson’s ability to bring students together has been widely praised by many in and beyond her school community. “She’s a dynamic woman, “said Pam Munizzi, Special Olympics Coordinator for CPS. “Jessie has done a wonderful job of integrating Special Olympics athletes into the mainstream. Students from Beidler come out to support the Special Olympics athletes, which shows how successful she has been at breaking down barriers between special ed and the general population. There’s a connection there that didn’t exist before.”
Nearly as exciting for Hudson as the Games is the opportunity to take her students on what many of them consider a travel adventure. “Lots of them have never been downtown,” she said, “so when we come into the Loop for the Games, they love seeing the sights and staying in a hotel. It’s a real learning experience for them.”
But nothing compares to the moment when the games begin. “They just can’t wait to get out there and play,” said Hudson. “Whatever their disabilities, they feel like somebody when they take that field, and that moment changes them.”
Despite her humility (Hudson believes that the joy her athletes bring her is reward enough for her service), it is easy to see why Jessie Hudson was selected as Special Olympics Coach of the Year for 2012.
“I’m so glad that Jessie’s peers recognized her contribution and honored her in this way,” said Gerry Henaghan, Special Recreation Manager for the Chicago Park District. “I admire what she’s done with Special Olympics, and how she makes sure that her kids get as much out of the experience as they possibly can.”
Henaghan, who has known Hudson for 20 years, respects her commitment to lead by example. “Jessie’s athletes are always among the most polite, most respectful kids who participate in the Games. They are examples of true sportsmanship, and that attitude comes from the top down.”
For her part, Jessie Hudson has been overwhelmed by the attention. “I give everything I have from the bottom of my heart, “she said, “but it’s not for any kind of reward. It’s for the joy I get from giving, and the joy my children give to me.”