South Sider Angel Perez who is unable to walk and barely talk, is considered a star athletes by his friends. His goal: Win a gold medal at the Special Olympics.
But before he can do that, he needs a physical so he joined 1,500 other athletes with intellectual disabilities at Tuesday's 17th Special Olympics Medfest at the United Center where they received free sports physicals. Seventy-four public schools and other social service agencies in Chicago including Skinner West Elementary, Gary Elementary, Northside Learning Center participated in the event.
"They [doctors] were funny," said Perez, who identifies himself as a 14-year-old boy when in fact he's 38. He was bussed to MedFest by El Valor, a Chicago-based not-for-profit organization that serves individuals with special needs. “They checked my eyes, nose, ears, height and weight, and they said ‘you finished, so you did a good job.’”
In partnership with Advocate Medical Group, from which about 100 physicians, nurses and other support staffs volunteer every year, Special Olympics Illinois (SOILL) launched its very first MedFest 17 years ago. Since then, it has been replicated all over the world.
“The number one objective of this event is to make athletes eligible to participate in Special Olympics,” said Annie Carroll, 54, vice president and area management for SOILL, which requires athletes a sports physical before getting into competitions. “Many of the athletes that come today wouldn’t able to do that otherwise because they don’t have the support at home or financial means to see the doctors.”
Inside the center, various exam stations were set up around the concourse, where they had their height and weight measured and their blood pressure, heart, lung and abdomen screened for any health problem.
“Their health condition is usually not good at all,” said Dr. Emily Chacko, internal medicine doctor in Park Ridge, Illinois, who has been volunteering at MedFest for 15 years. “Many of them are in wheelchairs, and they are not able to communicate. Even if they come here, they are not able to think. They have a cognition deficiency. They have speech deficit.”
From one station, there came the sound of Destiny Molina, clapping, screaming and crying every time her physician placed the stethoscope to her chest. She was a non-verbal 11-year-old girl from Lowell Elementary School.
“Molina enjoys Special Olympics,”said Kenneth Donald, 51, special education teacher at Lowell Elementary School. “I think it’s a lifelong opportunity for her and many athletes. All the kids are excited and looking forward to the basketball competition.”
Following the sports physicals, athletes had a vision and eye health screening. The Opening Eyes program was led by 11 optometrists, in company with the Lions Club International Foundation, with assistance from many student volunteers from the Illinois College of Optometry and Triton College Ophthalmic Technology.
“It’s to identify what eye problems they have and get them glasses if they need them,” said Dr. Melissa Sigler, 46, faculty member at the Illinois College of Optometry. “We make glasses on sight so that the athletes can leave with a new pair of prescription glasses or sports goggles all for free.”
The aisles were packed with athletes standing in a long queue, but everything appeared to be working out seamlessly as they made their way around the center under the guidance of their coaches. Some athletes also had a chance to watch Chicago’s professional hockey team, the Chicago Blackhawks, practicing while waiting for their turn.
Not only the athletes but also the SOILL staffs as well as volunteers from the United Center, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, universities in Chicago and other individuals enjoyed taking part in this event.
“I see it as a really good cause, helping Special Olympics athletes from all over Chicago,” said Andrew Miguelhuff, 19, a student at Chicago State University. “It is a great privilege to attend the event.”
A gastrologist at Trinity Hospital, Dr. Richard Bone, said he was thankful for the opportunity to help them out to pursue their ambition.
“We found it very rewarding to give back to the community and to do everything we can to make sure that the athletes are able to fulfill their dreams of participating in sports,” Bone said.
Special Olympics Illinois, a non-profit organization funded through individual donors, private donors and companies, provides year-round sports training and athletic competitions in a variety of Olympic-type sports for 22,000 children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and share friendships.