special olympicsBy Kevin Kindelin

The clear, crisp, sunny day of April 26 was charged with the energy and joy emanating from Special Olympics athletes who came to compete in the Area 18 District Games at Prospect High School in Mount Prospect.  As I made my way toward Immanuel’s Hospitality Tent, I saw bright smiles beaming from the athletes’ faces when their names were announced as winners over the public address system.  Proudly displaying their medals, all Special Olympics athletes stood tall that day.  I made my way around lines of spectators standing in line for a $3.00 slice of pizza and other sporting event type concessions.

Special Olympics began in the 1950s and early 1960s when Eunice Kennedy Shriver sought to change the unjust and unfair treatment people with intellectual disabilities received at that time.  Her goal was also to show these children and adults what they could achieve in sports.  This is a population that historically was shunned and shut away rather than shown love and celebrated.  Special Olympics offers Olympic-style individual and team sports that provide meaningful training and competition opportunities for them.  The athletes discover new strengths, abilities, skills and successes through the power of sports on the playing field and in life.  They inspire people in their communities and elsewhere by demonstrating the potential of the human heart and otherwise undiscovered human talents.  The first International Special Olympics Summer Games were held at Soldier Field in Chicago, July 19-20, 1968.

Immanuel began its involvement in Special Olympics 21 years ago as part of a PTL program for student service to the community.  During the first year, Immanuel volunteers helped with the track and field events.  They held ribbons and gave hugs at the finish line, jockeyed race results to event officials, and provided support and encouragement to Special Olympics athletes.

Then the next year, Immanuel was asked by the event coordinators to set up a hospitality tent.  At the time, there was always a hospitality tent at the State Special Olympics, but not at our local one.  At the 1996 local Special Olympics, we offered the first Hospitality Tent sponsored by Immanuel Lutheran Church and School and have done so every year since then.

The local Area 18 games consist of over 700 Athletes, 1200 volunteers and nearly 3000 spectators, all living within the Northwest Suburbs.  The purpose of our Hospitality Tent, coordinated and organized by Elaine Schmitt and Carol Hajkaluk, is to provide healthy snacks for the athletes, coaches, friends, and families.  Everything is complimentary thanks to the donations of Immanuel Church and School, Thrivent, and local merchants.  We get many volunteers from among Immanuel members and students to serve at the event.  They set up the serving tables, clean and cut the vegetables, fruit, and bagels.  They prepare the serving trays, set out the granola bars, olives, plates, cups, and napkins and keep the trays filled.

Immanuel volunteers serve the athletes the snacks of their choice.  They encourage them by asking about their events and congratulate them on the medals they’ve won.  Parents, event coordinators, and the athletes stop by throughout the day and say, “thank you, Immanuel” or “we can’t believe this is all free!” Immanuel is reaching out and bringing our faith into the community by not only serving this special population within our community, but the community as a whole as examples of Christ’s love through giving and serving.

As I drove away from the high school that sunny afternoon, I realized how I had been served by this event and all the incredible people involved.  God’s love and will were among us, binding us together as a community.