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With March Madness underway on college campuses across the country, Illinois State University and Illinois Wesleyan University last weekend hosted a special group of 1,500 basketball players who competed in the Special Olympics.
Teams and individuals from throughout the Southland were well represented at the three-day event, one of nine state sports competitions offered to disabled athletes throughout the year.
While their athletes compete for gold medals, local special-recreation associations continue to compete for space for their kids to practice and play. Basketball is one of the more popular sports offered by the associations, which have made great strides in addressing needs and providing equal opportunities for children and adults.
Many players for last year's state basketball tournament had to be determined by a lottery after a January ice storm forced the cancellation of qualifying tournaments. There was not enough gym space available to reschedule all of the games.
Given the current severe winter, "it's a miracle we got all the tournaments in," said Tami Pareti, recreation specialist for the Lincolnway Special Recreation Association. "With Special Olympics, there is no room for makeup games. We go from one sport to the other."
Facility space is "very, very tight," said David Breen, executive director of Special Olympics of Illinois, adding that the organization was able to get alternate dates this season at high school gyms. "It's still not 100 percent perfect, but we found a few schools that would offer a facility on short notice."
Orland Park mother Susan Leahy was thrilled that her son Brendan's basketball team qualified this year after his tournament was canceled last year. Still, she's concerned that special-needs athletes are not treated as well as high school athletes. She said that because of a lack of facilities, her son's team had only three practices this season. It still won a bronze medal at the basketball tournament last weekend.
Breen said he's working on a partnership agreement with the Illinois High School Association, which may give his athletes more priority regarding gym access.
If an agreement can be reached with the IHSA, "we would be treated like we are part of the high school. It would make it easier for athletic directors to give us space to practice and not charge some fees," Breen said.
It also would create more public awareness of special-recreation programs. Breen hopes to secure the partnership "sooner rather than later," he said.
While local special-rec directors said they're fortunate to have good relationships with their local park districts and high schools, they are second in line when it comes to allotting space - after the park and school districts have scheduled their programs, meaning the directors don't get the best times.
Also, gyms that formerly could be used without charge now often have custodial fees as local governments face tighter budgets, Breen said.
The result is that special-rec associations have been forced to find more creative ways of obtaining space for their growing programs.
The Lincolnway Special Recreation Association, which serves six park districts, soon may be the only association in the state to have its own rec center, as it plans to open a $4.5 million center in New Lenox in June, funded in part with a $2.5 million state grant. It will have four recreation rooms, a teaching kitchen, a gym with a wheelchair-friendly floor, locker rooms, a therapeutic garden and a softball field designed to accommodate wheelchairs.
"We've been so focused on sports, now we will be able to offer different types of programs," such as developing daily living skills, more social events and more practice time, Pareti said.
The Tinley Park Bobcats will open a disabled-accessible baseball field with a rubberized safety surface May 18 at Bettenhausen Park for its Challengers teams.
The baseball organization obtained a few grants and the community raised funds for the $261,000 field, which will allow the Challengers to expand their program to more kids, said Lori Murphy, one of the organizers of the grass-roots effort.
"It was a lofty goal to have the field ready for this season. It's amazing that it happened," she said.
For some of the special-rec groups, gym space is easy to come by, but facilities are needed for other popular programs, such as swimming and social events. And directors worry about accommodating a growing need for adult programs.
If she could obtain a grant, said Maddie Kelly, director of the Oak Lawn Park District, she would build an indoor pool.
To accommodate its swim program, the Southwest Special Recreation Association is allowed free use of the pool at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Chicago-Alsip, association director Lori Chesna said.
"The community has been very generous," she said.
The Alsip Park District, one of the southwest association's eight park districts, is seeking grant funds to expand its recreation center, which would include a wing for special-recreation activities, Chesna said. She said the association also is saving up for its own building.
"It would be awesome" to have space for adult day programs, because once clients are 22 years old, they're not eligible for high school activities, Chesna said. "We would love to have a room to call our own."
Janet Porter, director of the South Suburban Special Recreation Association - which serves about 6,000 participants from 11 suburbs - looks forward to using the gym at the Matteson Community Center next year, which will double the number of basketball courts available to the association, she said.
With some park districts as members, such as Homewood-Flossmoor, Tinley Park and Matteson, "we've had great success" in finding space, Porter said.
Beyond basketball and swimming, the special-rec groups offer activities throughout the year. In the fall and winter, it's skiing, snowshoeing, speed and figure skating, bowling and floor hockey. Summer events include track and field, gymnastics, powerlifting and tennis.
"We try to provide equal opportunities. Any time there is a need, we try to provide it," Kelly said. "Park districts are not discriminating. They just don't have the facilities. We are very fortunate to have the facilities we do."
Opportunities for special-needs athletes are "better than in the past," Pareti said. "We are welcomed more into the community and the schools. We've come a long way."