ALSIP, Ill. - An innovative Special Olympics program is teaching young children the importance of inclusion, teamwork and the fundamentals of sports.
The unique program is offered all over the Chicagoland area, for kids ages two to seven years old.
Post-pandemic, most parents are itching to find that perfect play group for their kids — something that helps them learn how to play and respect others. Well, this might be just the ticket.
On a breezy Saturday in southwest suburban Alsip, 2-year-old Olive Swiderski was getting some pro-tips on making a slam dunk.
This is what the young athletes program looks like.
"Young Athletes Program pairs up athletes with intellectual disabilities with those that do not have intellectual disabilities," said Patty Welsh, Special Olympic Region E Director.
Founded by the Special Olympics, the Sports Play initiative teaches children how to share, respect and appreciate others.
"It teaches them that's there's absolutely nothing wrong and that they should be playing with everybody and to be very honest they don't even realize that any of our athletes have any type of disability," Welsh said.
While this family picnic featured Special Olympians of all ages, the Young Athletes Program is tailored to kids ages two to seven, before they can officially enroll in Special Olympics at the age of eight.
Jacob Brettman, alongside his mother Nancy, participates in the Young Athletes Program with his niece and nephews.
"It's not always winning. It's watching the athletes out there trying. And for the young kids, it's important they know that. You don't have to win, and they're catching on. You'd be amazed," Nancy Brettman said.
The program leans on the community to organize groups of children to participate through schools, daycares or neighborhood play groups.
"Everybody loves everybody, and it sounds really cheesy, but it is true. They love to help each other, and I see a lot of that with this program," Welsh said.
The athletes will tell you, it's a win-win when it comes to teaching kindness and acceptance.
"I love meeting kids and to help kids out who need it. If a friend falls or anything happens," said Brandon Brown. "These kids are like my family."
If you're interested in starting a Young Athletes Program in your community, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org. It's totally free.