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DePaepe puts the special in Special Olympics

Cheryl DePaepe has been working with the special needs population in one form or another since 1971.

She started teaching special education at Putnam County in 1971 and took a group to participate in the Chicago Special Olympics games, DePaepe said it was then decided it would be a good idea to host games locally, and the idea of a “Special Sports Jamboree” was born. In 1977, the group was invited to the Special Olympics offices in Bloomington to see if there was interest in starting a Special Olympics chapter.

DePaepe, the longtime director for the Starved Rock Area, said when Special Olympics started, it was a once a year track meet. The area athletes’ interest has grown, and the local Special Olympics chapter now participates in 13 different sports throughout the year.

Locally the group hosts a district basketball event, a cross country and snowshoe competition, an individual basketball skills event, a district boccie tournament, spring track and field games, golf skills and five-hole golf, a volleyball competition, a bowling competition and a motor activity training event.

Throughout the years the group has also served athletes in tennis, aquatics, field hockey, power lifting and equestrian.

DePaepe said the athletes have to be 8 or older to participate in sports events, but during the past couple of years, the group has begun to serve younger athletes.

“We are looking at 6 and 7 year olds who will be transitioning into Special Olympics. We currently have a young athlete program that is run by Easter Seals in Ottawa. It is for individuals ages 2 through 11,” DePaepe said.

With all these events going on throughout the year, staffing becomes a predominant issue. DePaepe always did Special Olympics on the side, but after retirement, she became a full-time administrator for the program. The rest of the event staff are volunteers.

“Prior to games I could have anywhere from two to 12 or so people,” she said. “For example we have people come in to fold T-shirts and put boxes together. But I have a core group of about five to six people that help me do all kind of things that I need to do.”

In addition to those volunteers, there are about 300 to 500 “day of” event people who come to help the actual day of an event.

“We have a core group of people that volunteer year after year after year,” said DePaepe. “Some of the volunteers have been around as long as I have been.”

There is a progression to the events. Local area events are held, and the gold medal winners move on to a sectional or state tournament. This leads to something going on almost every weekend of the year throughout the state of Illinois. Of course, there is a financial component to all of this.

“We provide all of the events free to the athletes and their families,” she said. “The only thing we ask the teams in any form to provide is transportation to the events. We are very fortunate that all of the venues we use donate their facilities. A lot of our food products are donated when we provide lunches.”

However there are shirts, awards and other incidentals that have to be paid for. According to DePaepe, this is where the fundraising efforts come in to play. Each year the group does four things to help raise money.

There is a sponsored athlete campaign aimed at the local service clubs and businesses. A few years ago the group started a program called “Miles of quarters” in conjunction with Coca-Cola. The group now sells paper feet, where 12 quarters equals a mile of feet. Special Olympics, along with local law enforcement, also sponsors a “Polar Plunge” in Yorkville. DePaepe said last year this was the biggest fundraiser with more than 400 people participating. The fourth fundraising component is an annual auction, which is held Aug. 1.

DePaepe enjoys her work and doesn’t like to admit that some people say she is good at what she does.

“I could not do this without the volunteers,” she said.

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