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VP Penn and Members of Local 773 Help Special Olympics Celebrate 50 Years

Along with LIUNA Vice President and Midwest Regional Manager John Penn, dignitaries from around Illinois and many volunteers from Laborers’ Local 773, Special Olympics Illinois kicked off its 50th year with a celebration where it all began: in Southern Illinois at Touch of Nature Environmental Center.

“I first started volunteering with Special Olympics 45 years ago. My job was a hugger at the end of the 100 yard dash. At the end of the very first race an athlete jumped into my arms and said ‘I love you.’ I haven’t missed a meet since,” said VP Penn.

Established by Southern Illinois University, Touch of Nature is where Dr. William Freeberg launched camp programs for people with disabilities in the early 1950s.

“The first seed Bill Freeberg sowed was the revolutionary idea that people with special needs could leave behind the stigma and confinement of homes and institutions and come to a safe and accepting place to socialize, develop skills, learn about nature and, many times, just have fun for the first time in their lives,” said Brittany Freeberg, Bill Freeberg’s granddaughter.

With the help of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, William Freeberg started conducting workshops for recreation professionals from around the country on techniques for working with people with disabilities.

Anne Burke, who now serves as a justice on the Illinois Supreme Court, developed the idea of a track meet for people with disabilities after attending one of those workshops, and on July 20, 1968, the first Special Olympics event was held at Soldier Field in Chicago.

In addition to the opening ceremony, J.D. Tanner, Director of Touch of Nature unveiled plans for a new memorial plaza, which will honor Dr. Freeberg, and the renaming of Sledgefoot Lounge to Burke Lounge.

“Our apprentices in Landscape and Concrete classes will be assisting them with the construction of the welcome area and memorial beginning sometime this summer,” said Griffin Goetz, Assistant Administrator of Illinois Laborer's and Contractors Joint Apprenticeship & Training Program (ILCJATP). “We also helped raise over $35,000 which will be used to renovate the hall that was dedicated to Justice Burke.”

Since 2006 the ILCJATP has had an agreement with Touch of Nature that allows apprentices to have hands-on training at the site. Every road, parking lot and sidewalk/trail at the site has been done by Laborers Apprentices.

“I’m extremely proud of the work Laborers have done with the Special Olympics through the years, and I’m excited about continuing to work with them for a long time,” said Penn.

The photos below, in order, are of members of Local 773, LIUNA Vice President and Midwest Regional Manager John Penn, and Justice Burke behind the new sign for the lounge; Vice President Penn and Griffin Goetz looking at a drawing of the new memorial to be built by 773 apprentices; and Vice President Penn with Local 773 member Michael Starrick, Elizabeth Moore DMD, Michael and Elizabeth's son Gabriel Starrick (a Special Olympics athlete), and Mary Kate Starrick.

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