Celebration Dances All Around on All Sports Day
June 1, 2018
CHICAGO - Within the first five minutes of DePaul's inaugural "All Sports Day" to benefit Special Olympics, Maggie Strus knew this would be a day to remember for the athletics department.
A strong showing of 81 Blue Demon student-athletes, coaches, staff and faculty members representing every DePaul team except softball (away at NCAA regional) greeted the 127 Special Olympians on May 17 as they walked into McGrath-Phillips Arena.
At first, both the hosts and their visitors were not quite sure what to make of the event organized by Strus, DePaul's assistant volleyball coach.
But something Strus could not take her eyes off served to help melt away any apprehension and uncertainty.
The track and field team had set up a station where Special Olympians could dash to the finish line and run through a ribbon decked out in DePaul colors.
"I noticed this little boy about seven years old who was sort of keeping to himself at first, maybe not sure about this whole thing," said Strus who has a background working on Special Olympics activities along with children with autism.
"But when he ran the sprint and crossed the finish line, everybody starting cheering for him. He dropped to his knees and started blowing kisses to everyone. He was so happy in that moment. I smiled and thought: `This is why we are here.'"
That was only the beginning.
"Something else brought tears to my eyes," Strus said. "There was this visually impaired girl about 10 years old doing the track event with a teacher's aide on each side of her linked arm-in-arm. When she felt the finish-line tape across her belly, she really celebrated.
"No matter the odds, these children find a way to accomplish whatever is put in front of them. It was so inspiring for our student-athletes and everyone there."
Along with the running, the track team set up a shot put station using beanbags and a tape measure. Soccer had games where everyone had a chance to play goalkeeper. Volleyball ran drills for passing and setting.
Basketball operated a station for dribbling and passing along with a station for layups and shooting. Men's and women's tennis had the Special Olympians hitting serves through a hula hoop.
"Men's tennis coach Matt Brothers was there holding the hula hoop at one of the stations and having such a good time helping out," Strus said.
"We set up four goals, were playing with all the kids and it was really fun," Smith said. "It got a little hectic with everyone going against each other. It was pretty competitive, but they were nice with each other.
"For me, it's special because I had a speech impediment when I was younger so I really love the Special Olympics. That's why I love coming out here and doing it."
Hilling appreciated the reactions of the children.
"It was great," he said. "There were a lot of moving pieces, but that made it much more fun. The kids looked like they had a blast, so it made us all have a blast, too. It meant a lot to me."
All Sports Day was also a rewarding two hours for hurdler Siarah Jones.
"I worked at the track and field station where we had kids running a 20-yard dash, and it was the cutest thing ever," Jones said. "It was a monumental day for me and amazing to see these little kids and the impact we had on their lives.
"Seeing them go through the finish line with all their celebratory dances---shoot, dab, all that---just brought me so much joy and made me excited to start my future career as an occupational therapist where I will get to work with kids like them every day.
"It was the start of the rest of my life, and I'm so excited I got to participate in this event."
Volleyball's MacKenzie Savage added: "This was special for us to be able to help these kids help learn the sports that we love."
Special education teacher Sheila Barrett from Coonley Elementary School was full of smiles.
"We have been participating in the Special Olympics for the last 12 years, and this event today meant a lot to us in terms of seeing the DePaul athletes interacting with our students and really giving them an opportunity to learn a sport and an activity," Barrett said. "The kids really had a nice time."
Saving the best for last, Strus told the Special Olympians to help themselves to the 150 cupcakes decorated in DePaul colors that were donated by Molly's on Clark Street.
"The Special Olympics children did not know these cupcakes were for them," Strus said. "They were happy and surprised that someone outside of DePaul wanted to be a part of this special day. Their teachers and administrators wanted to send a big thank-you to Molly's."
Strus paused to reflect on her first All Sports Day.
"I was so grateful to have done it, and everybody was so willing to help," she started out. "I saw the effect it had on the student-athletes, coaches, staff members and how it put things in perspective for everyone.
"With all my own personal stories and memories from previously working with Special Olympians and with children with autism---I forget that others don't get to experience this unique and wonderful feeling.
"Sure, there were some concerns leading up to the event. What if one of the Special Olympians has an episode? What if they can't do something or need additional help in resources? What if a student-athlete is not responsive or communicative? Our kids were a little apprehensive at first and tiptoeing around. They had never done anything like this before.
"But once they got to their sport station, they dove right in and were ready to go for the moon. The Special Olympians were so eager to work and play and have fun. I watched our Blue Demons holding hands with the children and you could tell they had made a buddy for the day."
The looks of joy on the faces of everyone involved said it all.
"This brought so many people closer together from different DePaul teams, different places in the athletics department and even a cupcake store outside of DePaul," Strus said. "It was really neat.
"It was such a fulfilling feeling that we were able to give them so much support through our DePaul resources, the best one being the people here. This made their day, and to see that happen is a blessing I will remember forever."
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