Earlier this week, over 3,000 athletes gathered at Soldier Field to kick off the 45th annual Special Olympics spring games. More than 2,300 of these were CPS students representing over 90 of the District's schools.
"We're so proud to have so many of our students competing in these games," said Pam Munizzi, Special Olympics Coordinator for CPS. "It's an amazing experience for them, and for the coaches and volunteers who've help them get to where they are."
The athletes were led onto the field by the Ray Graham Technical High School Drum Line – a percussion ensemble made up entirely of students with disabilities.
"We saw a marching band at last year's Special Olympics, and we said, our students can do that," said Ray Graham principal Rebecca Parker. "So we started looking for a way to make it happen."
The solution came through After School Matters, which agreed to provide funding for the drum line. The group now has more than 30 members who rehearse for nine hours each week and participate in Saturday drum camps. Most of the students involved have moderate cognitive disabilities, and none had any experience with percussion when they joined the drum line. But this did not faze the staff at Ray Graham.
"The key to their success has been our decision to have the same expectations for these students as we would for kids who don't have their challenges," said Rebecca Parker. "And it's worked. In fact, they've surpassed all of the goals we set for them."
The Ray Graham Drum Line opened the ceremony by leading the Parade of Athletes – a dramatic walk that mirrors the Parade of Nations familiar from the Olympic Games.
"Each group of athletes marched in, holding a sign with the name of their school," said Pam Munizzi. "It was a powerful moment."
After several speeches came the torch run and the lighting of the Olympic caldron – an honor that was given to Vaughn High School, as they were the recipient of the 2013 Special Olympics Spirit Award.
"The Spirit Award is given to a group of athletes who have truly taken Special Olympics to heart," said Pam Munizzi. "In Vaughn's case, we have seen their program numbers grow and grow, and have applauded the way they participate in every aspect of Special Olympics throughout the year."
Six years ago, Vaughn High School had only one track and field team. Now, this school for students with special needs maintains four sports with five teams a piece and overarching faculty support.
"We're very excited about having won the Spirit Award," said Melissa Tuccini, P.E. teacher and Special Olympics Coordinator at Vaughn. "It's great for our students and staff to be recognized for all their hard work."
Ten athletes from Vaughn participated in the torch run, traveling the perimeter of Soldier Field alongside Chicago firefighters and handing the torch off to one another. Then, senior Javier Moctezuma-Garcia was given the honor of lighting the Olympic caldron.
"Javier has been an active participant in every sport at Vaughn since the day they began being offered," said Ms. Tuccini. "He is a strong example of our program and of Special Olympics as a whole."
After the lighting of the caldron, the athletes were led in their Olympic oath by a special guest - Chicago Bear J'Marcus Webb.
"The message of the oath is that win or lose, students should do everything they can to enjoy their experience and learn from it," said Pam Munizzi. "That is the goal of these games."
The official competition began on Wednesday and will last for three days. It includes numerous track and field activities such as meter dashes, motorized and non- motorized wheelchair races, and long jumps. All athletes receive participation ribbons for each of their events, with those coming in 1st-3rd place winning the traditional bronze, silver and gold medals. All gold medal winners advance to the state competition, which will be held in Bloomington-Normal this June.
"We look forward to sending a strong CPS contingent down state this year," said Pam Munizzi. "And we're very fortunate to have our main sponsor, Special Children's Charities, play a large role in making that happen."
When not competing in their events, student athletes and their coaches, parents and classmates – all of whom fill the stands to cheer them on – enjoy the games, music and entertainment of Olympic Town, which is designed to feel like a tru Olympic Village.
"It's one more way to make our athletes feel like everybody else," said Pam Munizzi. "That's what Special Olympics does for these students, it also teaches them about discipline and commitment, and gives them the opportunity to build self-esteem and create friendships that they will have for a lifetime."