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EDITOR’S NOTE: Beverly Farm privacy guidelines necessitate the use of first names only for residents.
GODFREY — With a nervous breath, she walks up to home plate. Getting into position, she anxiously waits for the softball to come her way.
Fighting the urge to shut her eyes tight, she focuses instead on the ball and swings, shocked to hear the crack of the bat as the ball hurls away from her.
For the first time ever, she has hit the ball, and suddenly she is running to first base. While the activities manager’s eyes fill with both tears and pride, the player charges toward the head coach, exclaiming, “The ball hit my bat! The ball hit my bat!”
And so it goes. Take a group of people who have been told their entire lives about everything they cannot do, turn them loose without restriction, and suddenly they achieve what many of us can only dream of doing.
For the last few years, that is precisely what the residents at Beverly Farm have been doing, not only participating in the Illinois division of Special Olympics, but excelling.
“This gives them a sense of commitment, teaches them teamwork, a longing to do their best, and increased self-confidence,” says Beverly Farm Activities Manager Krista Kell. “The main thing for me is that I want them to have fun. But they have done more than that; they have made us proud by how well they have done.”
For instance, the equestrian team brought home awards for every single contestant during the fall games in October.
2015 Equestrian awards
This year, there were eight competitors from Beverly Farm in a competition of more than 120 athletes in the equestrian division of the Special Olympics. Equestrian Center Director Jeff Rains says the athletes representing the Riverbend area once again impressed the judges.
“We ended up with four golds, four silvers, four bronzes, four fourths and a fifth. All of our athletes medaled or ribboned in each of their divisions or classes,” Rains says. “One resident, Steve, even achieved double gold.”
The Beverly Farm equestrian team starts with 18 participating athletes. The athletes practice from March until October, earmarked by two qualifier competitions in which the athletes from Beverly Farm compete with other athletes from the region. Each gold medalist in either of the two meets gets to go onto the state Special Olympics competition in Poplar Grove, Ill.
Competitive categories include a trail competition, showmanship and stock-seat equitation. These categories involve maneuvering around obstacles and memorizing patterns in riding.
“Sometimes the patterns are hard for any individual, versus an individual who may or may not have a disability. It’s very trying for some of our athletes, but they focus and practice to be able to get that pattern right,” Rains says.
The athletes compete at various levels of ability and skill, depending on the resident.
“Most of our athletes are independent riders,” Rains says. “We have some that are supported. Most of them will do walk-trot, and some will do walk only. It just depends on the athlete and what they’re capable of doing.
“They climb on the horse, you send them in the pen, and the officials don’t even let you coach. Once you get them in the pen, they are on their own.”
This is the fourth year for Beverly Farm residents to compete on the equestrian team at Special Olympics. Rains, who became a PATH Certified Instructor and Special Olympic coach in anticipation for athletes to compete, said the athletes competing were an asset to an improving program.
“The equestrian center itself has been here for over 25 years, but in the last six years is kind of when we really revamped the program,” he says. “Beverly Farm had never had an equestrian Special Olympic team. Through the course of my growth here with the equestrian center, it allowed me to become a coach for the Special Olympics.”
Kell says therapeutic horseback riding helps the residents in many ways.
“It’s really beneficial,” she says, smiling. “It makes a great difference for them when they’re here and they’re interacting with the horses; just the connection, I think, between the animal and the rider. They all have their favorites that they want to come and see … they know what to expect from one horse or another — it’s just really neat to see.”
“Once the qualifiers are over and they know who’s going to state, it’s on,” Rains adds. “They can’t wait until we leave to go. That whole month prior that we’re practicing, those individuals so look forward to it.”
Kell agrees, saying the hard work proves to be worthwhile for everyone involved, not just the athletes.
“The volunteers love it, the staff involved, we love it — it’s a labor of love, because that weekend in particular is so much work,” she says. “I’ve never been more tired, never worked as hard, and never had as much fun.”
Another light moment for the staff, volunteers, and athletes, according to Rains, is the excitement of the residents over dining throughout the competition weekend.
“Eating is a highlight, because a lot of times they don’t get to go different places,” he says. “They know when they travel with the Special Olympics group that it means we’re going to be staying somewhere and going to dinner somewhere.”
For Kell, she always looks forward to the awards ceremony.
“It’s been four years I’ve gotten to see them compete and I still cry when they get their medals,” she says. “When the presenters in uniform give out the medals, it makes it seem even that much more official, and that is a priceless experience for our athletes.”
Rains puts that feeling of satisfaction in simpler terms.
“When you see a smile on the face, it changes everything,” he says, with a broad smile of his own.
Beverly Farm’s history with Special Olympics
The partnership between Beverly Farm and Special Olympics reaches back to the early 1980s. When Kell began working at Beverly Farm in 1989, the residents were participating in only two Special Olympics events — bowling in the fall and athletics spring games.
“In the years I have been here, we have expanded, and now we participate in five different sports — athletics, bowling, softball, equestrian and bocce ball,” she says. “With the exception of maybe January to March, we have practices going on pretty much year round.”
Residents warmed to the idea and pushed to participate in more than just two events per year. When Rains began working at Beverly Farm, Kell asked him if he would be interested in bringing the equestrian Special Olympics, and he took the challenge and ran.
Today, more than 100 Beverly Farm athletes participate in Special Olympics. With approximately 380 residents living at the facility, that makes up more than a quarter of the residents, an unusually high number of participants.
“Bowling is the most popular for them, and I think it is one of Special Olympics’ most popular sports across the country,” Kell says.
She then adds with a laugh, “I think the snacks they get there is part of the reason they love it so much.”
The Blue Jays and the Blue Diamonds
In addition to the equestrian athletes, the two softball teams, the Blue Jays (men’s team) and the Blue Diamonds (women’s team), have claimed victories of their own, winning silver and bronze medals during the 2015 summer games.
Kell recalls the early days of the softball teams.
“(When playing against a more experienced team in Bethalto), one of our guys hit a home run deep in the outfield, ran the bases with great gusto, and when he got to home plate he almost gave me a heart attack by doing a cartwheel,” she says. “That’s when I knew we had to keep doing this.”
Over the years, the demand prompted the expansion to two teams, with the Blue Diamonds becoming one of only two all-women’s teams for Special Olympics in Illinois.
Gold medals have been won in the individual softball skills events, as well.
“If we have individuals who want to play but do not have their skills up enough to be on a team yet, they can participate in a skills tournament with batting, throwing and running and are scored on their performance,” Kell says. “If they have an interest, they participate on one level or another. No one is left out; we encourage everyone.
“For a couple of our athletes, it took me a long time to convince them to actually participate. I tell them just come and try. Once they do, they flourish.”
Why is Special Olympics important?
Founded in 1968, Special Olympics provides training and competitions free of charge to more than 4.5 million athletes worldwide, instilling the tools and encouragement to overcoming barriers.
“If you ever need to feel good about yourself, feel good about life or be inspired, then either be a coach, go and watch, or just volunteer for a day at Special Olympics,” Kell says. “I guarantee you will have smiles and tears the entire time you are there.”
Many of the local athletes, ranging in age from 19 to their 70s, have improved in communication and motor skills, learned to work as part of a team, and for many, come out of their shells and break free of the private world they created for themselves.
“You get really excited when your good players get up there and hit, but for those that struggle to make contact with the ball, when they make a hit and base, that is the most fun,” Kell says. “If you have given it your all and you have a smile on your face, you’re a winner.”
Track and field coach Chuck Wilcoxen, who has been coaching at Principia College since 1997, has proven to be invaluable with training for the Beverly Farm residents who participate.
“We use their indoor track to run, and they give our guys pointers and give them techniques on the shot put and doing the running long jump, so we have been very appreciative of Chuck’s help,” Kell says.
A goal for Kell is to see some of her athletes make it to the national and international Special Olympics competitions.
“We are going to make that happen while I am still here,” she says with a defiant air of determination. “I want to see at least one of our athletes have that experience.”
Founded in 1897 by Dr. William and Elizabeth Smith, Beverly Farm began with two buildings and two residents. Today, the home for adults with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities truly has become a community, with hundreds of residents, hundreds of staff members and countless volunteers.
It is also breaking stigmas.
“This is a community within a community,” Resource Development Director Tina Steibel says. “People are always surprised when they see what it is like here, with residents going to work, riding their bikes, having girlfriends and boyfriends. It is very social and a great place to live.”
It is also about giving back. Throughout the year, the residents pick up trash along Humbert Road, shred paper and donate it to the 5As nonprofit animal shelter, participate in the Knights of Columbus Tootsie Roll drive, ring bells for the Salvation Army, and recycle cans, using the money to purchase toys for the Toys for Tots campaign.
They also learn the value of independence.
“Having special needs does not mean you stay home forever,” Steibel says. “No, they are meant to spread their wings and fly, and this is where they land. This is their college; this is their dorm. This is what they are supposed to do in life. We make it a safe environment for them.”
For Rains, Special Olympics gives people the opportunity to not only be independent, but to be winners, as well.
“(During last year’s equestrian events), Lauren entered the ring, and then proceeded to thank everyone for coming to watch, acknowledged the other riders, and waved hello to the judge,” he says, beaming with pride. “She completed her event and then thanked everyone all over again. The whole crowd cheered, realizing what a wonderful individual she was for recognizing the others and the spectators.
“You just never know what is going to happen at these events.”
Beverly Farm medalists
2015 Special Olympics medals, equestrian division
Jerry: showmanship 2nd; stock seat 4th
Jenny: stock seat 2nd; working trail 5th
Josh: working trail 4th
Lynne: stock seat 2nd; working trail 3rd
Mike: stock seat 3rd; working trail 1st
Liz: stock seat 4th; working trail 4th
Steve: showmanship 1st; working trail 1st
Jonathan: showmanship 3rd; stock seat 1st
For information on donations, contact Resource Development Director Tina Steibel at firstname.lastname@example.org. For information on volunteering, contact Development Coordinator Taylor Gibbs at email@example.com.