BRIDGEPORT — The magic is made at McGuane Park.
The sports team known as the McGuane Magic is part of a Chicago Park District program pairing developmentally disabled athletes with the nationwide Special Olympics organization for sporting events throughout the city.
The partnership between the entities can be traced back to the 1960s, when the city's civic leaders moved to bring the intellectually disabled out of state institutions or homes and into the limelight.
That led to the first Special Olympics, hosted in 1968 at Soldier Field. Since then, the program has grown to include some four million athletes across the globe, including an estimated 5,000 athletes in Chicago alone.
About 35 participants strong, the group at McGuane, 2901 S. Poplar Ave., practices and competes in a wide range of sports including gymnastics, floor hockey, power lifting, swimming and bocce ball. Beginning in January, some members of the team will practice snowshoeing and skiing, their sights set on the annual winter games in Galena.
But the programs extend beyond sports. They include lessons in life skills such as cooking, how to use coupons at the grocery store, mailing letters and filling out job applications.
While park leaders emphasize teamwork, there is a special focus on empowering each of the participants as individuals, too. On any given day, that could mean leading participants through small tasks, like tying shoes or safely crossing the street.
“We offer so much for somebody who may not be given the same opportunities as others and their needs get met physically, emotionally and socially,” said Kate McIntosh, the 27-year-old Beverly native who runs the park's special recreation program.
About one-third of the participants have special needs that require help for tasks like using the toilet. For that, McGuane Park has three, specially trained “inclusion aides" who keep the profoundly disabled involved in the larger group, which is made up of kids as young as 8 through adults in their 60s.
Rose Camp enrolled her son Joey to the program after happening upon an activity at a nearby park.
"I wanted him to be challenged with sports, not an arty-crafty situation where he'd be sitting around coloring stuff all day," she said.
That was 19 years ago. Today, Joey, who has Down Syndrome, remains a staple in the program, having participated in just about every sport it has offered.
"He’s built relationships. He's learned. He's grown. He's become more independent. If he had to, he can walk to the park by himself and get himself home," she said. "He loves it. That's his world."
"I'm comfortable knowing that Joey is getting what he wants," said Camp, of Bridgeport.
McIntosh said that’s a common thread among parents of special needs, to have a “safe, happy” place where their children, young and old, are looked after by caring professionals. At McGuane Park, there are six people dedicated to the program.
For McIntosh, a parks volunteer since the age of 10, presiding over the program is more than just a job. She said she gets to see first-hand incredible feats and accomplishments and participants "doing things people probably don't think they can do."
"It's about acceptance and inclusion for all people," she said.
Interested in learning more about the McGuane Magic? Contact the park by calling 312-747-6497.