Small-but-mighty Arcola Special Olympics team 'all kids at heart'

Small-but-mighty Arcola Special Olympics team 'all kids at heart'

ARCOLA — It was the first morning of spring break. Six weeks out from game day.

The Arcola High School campus was far from deserted.

Workers broke ground near the track, which itself was dotted with purple-clad high school runners.

And across the parking lot was another group — smaller, not all of them dressed in purple, but all of them athletes just the same.

They are Special Olympics athletes — five of them in total, although only four could make it to the first-day-of-spring-break practice.

And they are less athletes-in-need-of-coaching (although that is true, too) than they are peers to coach Beckie Headrick. The Special Olympics program at Arcola traces its roots back to her, since she started it seven years ago.

Back then, participants numbered in the double-digits: 11.

Now, they're down to five, a number they've been "going steady at" for the past three years.

To qualify as a Special Olympics athlete while a student, Headrick said, students need a 504, or Individualized Education Plan. As a special education teacher at the high school, she knows there's more than a handful of students with IEPs in the school. It's still not a large percentage: 2018 data from the Illinois State Report Card, the most recent, indicated that 9% of 340 Arcola High School students had an IEP, which is around 30 students. The majority of IEPs were issued for specific learning disabilities.

So why aren't more students joining the team?

"There is some stigma to it," Headrick said.

How to beat that is something she's still working on.

* * *

Other area school districts offer Special Olympics programs as well, including Arthur, Champaign, Tuscola, Urbana and Villa Grove.

But one thing Arcola's small program has that most others don't is the official "Unified Champion Schools" designation.

"It's an inclusion option for schools," said Joanie Keyes, a regional director with Special Olympics Illinois. "They (Arcola) are part of the 'inclusion resolution' that we're calling it. Officially recognized basically means they're providing inclusion opportunities for regular and special education students to partner together in activities inside and outside of school."

Mostly — and at Arcola — this looks like at least one all-student assembly that recognizes Special Olympics athletes. The official organization can provide bracelets to hand out, and students who aren't part of special education or the Olympics can volunteer their help. Official sign-offs from building administrators are necessary, making the designation an application-based process.

It sounds a little red-tape-y.

But Headrick thinks it's worked in at least one way: she had to turn away student volunteers who were eager to accompany the team to the Spring Games on April 26 at Eastern Illinois University and walk with athletes past cheering crowds of fans and families.

"I had more students coming to volunteer than I have athletes," she said. "I was like, 'Well I've only got five athletes, so not everyone can go.'"

In a small way, maybe it will erase some of that "stigma" she said prevents some from joining.

* * *

Part of the reason Arcola has five participants in Special Olympics this year is because Headrick doesn't put restrictions on the ages of those who join. She'd like to expand the program to younger students — she currently works with middle and high schoolers — but that is a formal process.

Letting older athletes in, however, is not.

That's how Camargo native Karen Lamkin's "Aerosmith boys" — Steven, 22, and Tyler, 18 — got on the team.

"My oldest son, Steven, he used to come to Arcola for special education," she said. "My youngest son was going to Villa Grove, so I was constantly going back and forth and I was like 'My God, I can't do this anymore.' So I put them both in home school, then I was over at a friend of mine's house and Beckie was there. And we talked about Special Olympics and I was like, 'Oh, okay.' So I went home and I was like, 'Do you guys want to do this?'"

They did.

In some ways, it was a chance to have something — anything — they could really do, since Camargo's offerings are limited.

"There's nothing in Camargo. Nothing," she said. "I grew up there and I swore I would never move back."

In Arcola, she said, she finds a chance for her, as a parent and her two boys as they are, to be accepted.

"You know, people don't understand if they've never been around kids with special needs," she said. "They don't get it. Until you've walked in our shoes for five minutes even, you don't fully grasp the concept of having a special-needs child."

She remembers constant calls from one school official years ago any time something was wrong.

"I was like, 'I can't keep leaving work,'" she said.

She remembers the two times Steven almost died: Once from lack of oxygen, once from a sudden drop in blood sugar — both sons are Type I diabetic. She remembers the diagnosis of DiGeorge Syndrome and how that suddenly explained "some learning issues" Steven had. She remembers the braces he wore until first grade to help him walk. And she remembers having the thought that Steven was a "big sports fan" when she learned he shouldn't lift more than 45 pounds.

But right now, she said, both Steven and Tyler are "excited" to walk into the Spring Games at EIU, since this is the first year they'll be going. Still a few weeks away, they're not nervous yet.

On that first day of spring break, both boys threw a softball 56 feet. By rule only allowed to participate in one throwing event, they'd swapped javelins for softballs, since they're allowed to choose the events they want to do.

Headrick sent a softball home with Karen to help them practice.

* * *

It's not just the acceptance of others that Special Olympics brings, although that remains a large draw for Karen and her sons.

Josie Guana learned self-acceptance through five years of being a Special Olympics athlete.

On that first day of Arcola's spring break, she raced down the track, the bright pink of her wheelchair a blur.

"I think the most challenging thing would be embracing what I am," she said. "I'm in a wheelchair, but I've always hated the thought of it. But doing the Special Olympics really helped me get over it."

Headrick hopes the program will grow — either through more eligible students joining or by expanding participation to younger students. But even if next year is another five-person year, they'll just keep doing what they've been doing.

"We dance around, we kid each other. We have a lot of fun," she said. "We like to challenge each other. I don't feel like a coach-coach to be honest. I feel more like one of these guys — we're all kids at heart."

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