Philanthropy spotlight: Special Olympics Chicago
Written by: Laura Baginski
Anyone who has competed in sports knows the positive effects it can have: learning what it means to be a part of a team, testing physical and emotional limits, and improving overall health. Thanks to Special Olympics Chicago, 6,000 athletes with intellectual abilities get to experience all the highs and lows that come with participating in sports—without having to pay for a thing.
How does the Special Olympics accomplish this? Through creative fundraising endeavors, such as the upcoming Chicago Polar Plunge on March 6. Katie Hardiman, Senior Development Manager at Special Olympics Chicago, explains more about that icy dip in Lake Michigan below (yep, that's her in the photo above doing the Plunge with her husband), along with what supporting athletes with intellectual disabilities has meant to her as a parent.
What is your personal connection to Special Olympics Chicago?
My family got involved with Special Olympics Chicago years ago through a friend. My husband, Niall, and I had just moved here from his home in Dublin, Ireland, and he did pro-bono work for the charity. We were hooked from day one—we met such wonderful people and the amazing athletes. Now he’s on the Board of Directors and I work in corporate development and fundraising. Despite not having a family member with an intellectual disability (ID), I was so drawn to the idea of reshaping Chicago as a community of inclusion and acceptance. Over the years, I’ve learned that those with intellectual disabilities arguably endure the most discrimination of any marginalized group, in that to many they are simply invisible. What is worse than that? They matter, and I want to be someone who sees them.
Why is the charity important to Chicago kids?
Special Olympics Chicago serves 6,000 athletes, a majority of whom are children, offering year-round sports training and competition in 22 sports. Most athletes join the program around age 8, but we’ve also expanded the Young Athletes™ play program for ages 2 to 7. We work collaboratively with Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Park District, and participation costs families nothing. We cover the cost of events, coaches’ training, equipment and even all transportation. This is imperative as more than 80% of our participants are economically disadvantaged and would likely not have any fitness programs or social outlets without our programs. They really count on us to meet their health, social and emotional needs. In fact, most people aren’t aware that Special Olympics is the largest global public health organization specifically focused on people with ID. It’s not just a track meet, it’s THE organization advocating for children with intellectual disabilities.
How has being involved in this charity affected you as a parent?
My children are two and five years old, so they don’t yet see “different” as negative, and I hope to keep it that way as long as I can. I’ve learned a lot about empathy and try to bring that home and put it into practice. Part of the Special Olympics vision is to give our athletes continuing opportunities to demonstrate courage, experience joy and experience true friendship. I hope my children will be that trusted friend to many people with ID, as I know it will benefit them and make them kinder, smarter and more joyful adults.
How can people get involved?
There are so many ways to make an impact for our athletes, aside from just making a donation. If you’re passionate about sports, you could volunteer at one of 40+ sporting events that take place throughout the city, or join our Bank of America Chicago Marathon Team. A slightly more unorthodox volunteer opportunity is to participate in the Chicago Polar Plunge, like Lady Gaga and Jimmy Fallon have done in the past few years! Each participant fundraises just $175 and takes a refreshing dip in Lake Michigan! The event is in its 16th year and takes place Sunday, March 6 at North Avenue Beach. There are so many benefits that come with taking the Plunge—it’s a spectacular excuse to bring companies and communities together for a common cause, and it’s a really fun, crazy day that participants remember forever.
I’d also welcome parents and their children to cheer on our athletes at our Spring Games Opening Ceremonies on April 29. Chicago is the birthplace of the international Special Olympics movement. The first ever games were held in Soldier Field in 1968, and we have been hosting our Opening Ceremonies there ever since. Each year, we aim to grow the audience in the stands, giving our athletes the audience they deserve as they parade onto the field and light the Olympic torch. We welcome schools, companies and the general public to be “cheerleaders,” and it’s a truly inspirational and worthwhile way to spend a Friday morning.