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Elgin middle school sends off Special Olympics athletes: 'This is astounding -- it makes my heart swell'

The Courier-News - 5/5/2019

May 05-- May 5--In the past, Prairie Knolls Middle School staff sent off its students participating in the Special Olympics via a congratulatory message over the school intercom.

On Friday, all 650-plus students and staff of the Elgin school filled one of its main wings to send off the school's six Special Olympics athletes. Children and adults applauded, the high school band performed, cheerleaders and parents greeted the athletes at the end of the hallway.

"We had no idea it would be like this," said Althea Sawalski, a special education teacher at Prairie Knolls. "One parent came up to me and said, 'This is the first school that's embraced us like this.'"

The athletes, their parents and school staff alike were moved by the experience ahead of Sunday's Special Olympics regional meet at Aurora's Marmion Academy. Hannah Hefferan, an eighth-grade student doing the softball throw and 50-meter run, said "it was great seeing everyone here."

"It was amazing, it was all really nice," added Vivian Breyer, an eighth-grader running the 100-meter race and competing in the softball throw.

Different school clubs and teachers pitched in to make the send-off special, said social studies teacher Lindsay Smith, who helped organize the event. The student volunteer group S.T.A.R. purchased hats for the athletes and made posters. The Prairie Knolls student council made and distributed gift bags to the athletes. A banner wishing the athletes good luck was signed by practically everyone in the school.

Prairie Knolls teachers like Smith and Sawalski were overwhelmed with the reception and emotions of Friday's short but grand celebration. Kids and staff have been "high fiving" the athletes all of Thursday and Friday, they added.

"In a world in which so much bad is happening, it was just nice to see everyone excited about something good and coming together," said Smith. "I feel like the whole week was like that."

Wendy Warmowski-Bush attended Friday's send-off. Her son Jacob will participate in this weekend's meet in the 50-meter run and tennis ball throw.

Athletics and the Special Olympics mean so much to her and her son, whose bout with meningitis at 23 months old was severe enough that doctors worried Jacob might never be physically active. Friday's event showed the school cared about Jacob and the other students with specialized needs, she said.

"He gets excited being included (in the Prairie Knolls community)," she said. "This is astounding -- it makes my heart swell."


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