In 2014, the Illinois Lottery launched the nation’s first specialty lottery ticket benefiting the Special Olympics, the world’s largest sports organization for individuals living with intellectual and physical disabilities. While funds raised from most Illinois Lottery specialty tickets are distributed through grants awarded to numerous organizations working in a specific area, such as veteran’s relief or breast cancer care, the Illinois Lottery specialty ticket in support of Special Olympics Illinois (SOILL) is different in that 100 percent of profits are allocated directly to the non-profit organization, which redistributes them to Special Olympics programs throughout the state. To date, the specialty ticket has raised over $7 million dollars supporting some of Illinois’ most dedicated athletes.
The instant ticket costs two dollars and is available at more than 7,000 Illinois Lottery retailers statewide. With its fun design and this year’s “Fat Wallet” game, in which players can win up to ten times for prizes up to $20,000, the Illinois Lottery specialty ticket in support of Special Olympics Illinois makes a great gift for anyone 18 and over who values inclusivity, teamwork, and supporting local athletes. Visit the Illinois Lottery website for more information about this specialty ticket and others, and read on to learn more about Special Olympics Illinois.
The Special Olympics was founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1968, inspired partially by her sister, Rosemary Kennedy, who lived with disabilities throughout her life. Driven by her desire to break stigmas, build community, and improve opportunities for individuals with intellectual disabilities, Kennedy Shriver launched Camp Shriver, a summer camp for children with intellectual disabilities, at her Maryland farm in 1962. The resounding success of that endeavor led her to expand the concept, and on July 20, 1968, 1,000 athletes from the U.S. and Canada assembled at Soldier Field for the world’s first Special Olympics competition.
Today, the Special Olympics supports year-round athletic competitions for more than five million athletes living in more than 170 countries around the world. Special Olympics Illinois remains a vital part of that international network, with more than 21,000 athletes participating in 19 sports in 11 regions throughout the state. Athletes ages eight and up are encouraged to apply, and there is no maximum age limit. In addition, the organization offers a Young Athletes program for 9,000 children ages two through seven with and without intellectual disabilities, introducing kids to sports while building their self-esteem and social skills.
Thanks to SOILL’s fundraising efforts, which include its partnership with the Illinois Lottery, the organization can provide its athletic programming at zero cost to the athletes or their families. SOILL COO Kim Riddering says that funds raised from the specialty ticket help supply much-needed equipment, uniforms, buses to regional and state competitions, and more (individual teams and programs can apply for funds directly through SOILL on an as-needed basis). They also help fuel initiatives such as the Urban Strategy program, which focuses on athletes and outreach in the Chicago area; MedFests, where athletes can receive free physicals; and Healthy Athletes, which provides six types of health screenings, including vision and dentistry.
“When I first did Special Olympics back in my freshman year, it was amazing for me because I like how I communicate with my team, and [we] try to work together as a team and win games,” says George McDay, a student-athlete at Vaughn Occupational High School in Chicago’s Portage Park neighborhood, which serves grades nine through 12 and offers continuing education to students up to 22 years old.
Now in his seventh and final year at Vaughn, McDay has participated in Special Olympics’ basketball, soccer, softball, track and field, flag football, and Unified Sports (a competition that includes basketball, flag football, soccer, and bowling)—though he says bowling is his specialty. In his junior year, his basketball team placed 1st in regionals, which meant he was invited to the State Championships, which includes Opening Ceremonies, complete with a torch run with first responders, and an overnight stay in a college dorm with his fellow athletes.
“I really like helping students to interact with teammates [or athletes] from another team. We just help each other out.” McDay says.
Vaughn teacher Deb Yarovsky, who is also the school’s athletic director, says that participation varies depending on the sport but that the school typically has between 80 to 120 students participating in its most popular programs, which include basketball, soccer, and track and field. “I feel like it’s such an incredible program,” she says of Special Olympics Illinois. “It’s something super near and dear to my heart. In addition to the athletic competition—I think George could talk about this too—it’s just the friendships that have formed, the social opportunities, and the communication, not just with the Vaughn students. Still, when we go to those competitions, they get to interact with other athletes from Chicago and with other athletes from the state.”
For many SOILL athletes, the benefits of playing go far beyond the playing field. McDay plays in a north-side bowling league with his friend Ian, who he met while competing in Special Olympics, and he and his parents are talking with local coaches about ways he can pursue his interests in sports after graduation.
SOILL also has an extensive athlete leadership program, which offers a variety of ways for athletes to develop new skills, express their voices, and pursue interests in coaching, fundraising, governance, and more. “We have athlete leaders that sit on our board of directors—technically, they’re my boss,” Riddering says. “They work at [companies such as] United Airlines, Amazon Fresh, and Amazon, but they have a say on what goes on within their own program. And this is their program. We’re just the people putting it on for them.”
Riddering says the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Special Olympics particularly hard, as health concerns, school closures, and strict state guidelines on group homes and state-run institutions meant that, for a time, athletes couldn’t participate in their usual activities. In some cases, athletes moved between facilities due to closures or moved in with family members, leaving SOILL without their updated contact information.
In response, the organization is building an outreach plan to reconnect with those athletes and get them back in the game. “This is a lifestyle, Special Olympics Illinois, I absolutely believe that with my whole heart. And when you pull a lifestyle away from an athlete, that’s tough. So it is our mission to get them back and provide them with everything they need to get going again,” Riddering says.
Beyond purchasing lottery tickets or making individual donations, the public can support SOILL by volunteering or simply attending a competition. “It’s such an incredible opportunity,” Yarovsky says. “It’s one thing to hear about Special Olympics or read about it. But being there to be able to see the interactions of these athletes is—this might be a stretch—but for me personally, it’s life-changing to see the effort that [the athletes] put in their hard work and the relationships they build. It’s really touching.”
For more about Special Olympics Illinois, visit soill.org.