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Approaching The Special Olympics’ 45th birthday, Justice Anne M. Burke recalls its origins

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Updated: July 15, 2013 12:40AM

‘Faith is taking the first steps even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” These words from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. describe a journey that began in 1965 and culminated in the creation of The Special Olympics, which is celebrating its 45th birthday July 20 (and held its most recent games May 7 in Chicago).

In 1965, I was a physical education instructor for the Chicago Park District, where I volunteered for an innovative program designed to teach children with mental disabilities. This pilot program was funded by the Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation. At the time, no one knew if these special youngsters could learn the skills necessary to join in athletic competition. In those days, you may recall that people with disabilities — both physical and mental — had little, if any, opportunities. In fact, it was not until 1990 that the Americans with Disabilities Act would become law.

As the program unfolded, my eyes were opened. It became clear that my students could learn to run and jump and swim. They discovered that they could throw a baseball, run a race, play basketball, ice skate, even twirl a baton.

In 1967, I dreamed of staging an event at Soldier Field that would bring together “special” athletes for a first-ever competition. William McFetridge and Dan Shannon, both of the Chicago Park District, encouraged me to apply to the Kennedy Foundation for funding. So I did. And on July 20, 1968, The Special Olympics was born.

At that first event, sports stars from Chicago and all around the nation gathered with the special athletes at Soldier Field, welcomed by Mayor Richard J. Daley. Eunice Kennedy Shriver inspired us with what became the Special Olympics motto: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

Our iconic lakefront stadium echoed that day with shouts of joy and reports of starter pistols. There were hugs and handshakes, tears and tantrums, and a tremendous sense of gratitude to the volunteers who had made this most magical day possible.

The seeds planted that day grew into a worldwide movement that now improves the lives of millions of disabled persons in more than 160 nations. I believe the world was forever changed that day. Now, across the globe, we embrace persons with disabilities as people of promise and possibility. At the national and international games, families celebrate the victories of their Special Olympians — everyone wins a medal.

I’m so proud to say that thousands of volunteers continue to climb the staircase of faith, which began on a bright, sunny day 45 years ago, right here in the heartland of our nation, the most American of American cities.

Let us all join together in wishing a happy 45th birthday to Special Olympics.

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