How a Chicago PE teacher helped create the Special Olympics - FOX 10 News |

Special Olympics: How a Chicago PE teacher helped create the games

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

At a time when most people with intellectual disabilities were kept at home or in state institutions, Dr. Bill Freeberg from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale had a different approach. He believed outdoor recreation provided the most benefit.

Dr. Freeberg created day camps for people with intellectual disabilities in the early 1950's. It's those camps that would one day spark an idea from a Chicago P.E. teacher that became the Special Olympics.

On July 20th, 1968, Eunice Kennedy Shriver welcomed the athletes to a small crowd at Soldier Field.

Chicago native Amelia Hernandez was there at the first ever Special Olympics.

I was running the 50-meter dash and standing long jump and softball throw," Hernandez remembers.

She won gold in the 50-meter dash.

That was then.

Now, at the age of 57, Amelia is still competing.

"I been long time. Been doing it for a while. I never stop," she says.

Back in 1955, Anne Burke was a Phys Ed teacher for Chicago's Park District. She worked in a program for people with intellectual disabilities. It was a program in its infancy at a time when intellectual disabilities were misunderstood.

"It's worldwide. How could anyone in their wildest dreams imagine that? I didn't dream about it at all," Burke says of the program's success. "What I think the point was to educate the world. I think that's what Chicago did when the games were born here."

"Kids were kept in the closet. Kids were kept at home. It was told by many medical people to put them in an institution," Burke says.

Burke's simple idea of a citywide track meet for people with intellectual disabilities got the attention of Dr. Bill Freeberg. He suggested they ask Eunice Kennedy Shriver and the Kennedy Foundation for funding. It worked, but Shriver wanted it to be bigger. So a nationwide call went out to schools and agencies. 1,000 athletes from 26 states and Canada competed in the first Special Olympics. The historic event that grew what Special Olympics is today.

Special Olympics has grown to 170 countries and all 50 states. The 2014 Special Olympics USA games in New Jersey begin June 14th. 

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