Olympics unlocks potential of Kendall’s special athletes

By Erika Wurst for Chronicle Media

Second in a series highlighting the Special Olympics of Illinois as the international organization marks its 50th anniversary.

Kendall County Special Olympics athlete Kelly Budde being pushed by long-time young volunteer coach Christian Malkosky. (Photo courtesy of KCSO)

When she joined the Kendall County Special Olympics last year, 17-year-old Samantha Worthington bloomed in ways her mother, Michelle, could have never imagined.

Her eye contact improved, and she carried herself with the confidence of a gold-medal athlete. She started greeting classmates in the hallway, and began standing a little taller as she walked.

“She’s really come out of her shell,” Michelle Worthington said of her daughter. “Even her teachers have noticed how much she has changed.”

The Worthington’s only regret: Not getting Samantha involved with Special Olympics sooner.

“She was a really late starter,” Michelle said. “Unfortunatley, we didn’t know about the program. If we would have known about this when she was younger, we would have started sooner, no doubt.”

Once they realized the wealth of untapped potential KCSO could offer, Samantha and Michelle were hooked.

In her first year of competing, Samantha won a spot at the state competition. She wore her medals to school for weeks after receiving them.

Samantha will venture downstate again this year to compete in standing long-jump.

Athlete Olivia Redman with coach Marcy Stefaniak, who is also a Kendall County Special Olympics board member. (Photo courtesy of KCSO)

“As her mom, I’m just so proud of her,” Michelle said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity and such a wonderful experience.”

Samantha not only loves track and field events, but she enjoys playing in her school’s band, playing basketball and living life to its fullest.

For 42-year-old Julie Hilger, her involvement in Special Olympics has been a decades-long venture.

Julie and her mother, Jean Hilger, moved to Oswego when Julie was a toddler. At 5-years-old, Julie’s family got her involved in the Special Olympics. These days, “her whole social life revolves around it”, Jean Hilger said.

Julie, who has “very poor communication skills” has been accepted into the Special Olympics family without hesitation.

Athlete Samantha Parisi being escorted from her event by her parents, Chuck Parisi and Eva Parisi, who is also on the Kendall County Special Olympics board. (Photo courtesy of KCSO)

Julie took a brief hiatus from the program after she graduated high school. In those days, that’s was the age when young adults were made to leave the program and venture on to new things.

Luckily, the hiatus was short-lived, and the program opened itself up to become more inclusive. Today, there are athletes in their 60s competing with the KCSO.

“All of her friends all of her life have been Special Olympics friends,” Jean said of her daughter “This is not only an athletic outlet for her to succeed, accomplish and feel proud of her self, it is also her network.”

Jean often wonders what life would be like without the opportunity her daughter has been provided.

“I couldn’t have picked a better place so that Julie has a chance to live a full life. Most of that has to do with the Special Olympics and the special education system in the Oswego area,” Jean said. “This has been a lifesaver and lets the kids feel accomplished and proud of themselves.”

Kendall County Special Olympics coach and board member Marcy Stefaniak and, to her left, athlete Denise Maruna, teen volunteer Mandi Parisi. On Stefaniak’s right is teen volunteer coach Katie Zenisek. (Photo courtesy of KCSO)