Woman on a Mission

By Rachel Wisinski | Photography by Holly Leitner

From the time she served as a candy striper at age 15, Betty Aguirre knew she wanted to help people. Years later, when she had a son with special needs, that fire inside her only grew.

One fateful day in July 1968 while attending the first international Special Olympics Games at Chicago’s Soldier Field, Aguirre met Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the organization’s founder, whose compassion for others was contagious.

Kennedy Shriver — the sister of President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy — established “Camp Shriver” six years earlier as a way to provide organized physical activity for children with intellectual disabilities, and the concept quickly permeated across the world. Aguirre had followed Kennedy Shriver’s work, and relished the opportunity to thank her role model that day.

“I wish I was a fraction of what that lady was,” Aguirre says. “She had a dream and helped so many people, and her dream is still here and helping so many people today.”

Meeting Kennedy Shriver sparked something in Aguirre that she couldn’t ignore. A few years after that meeting, Aguirre began volunteering with a Special Olympics program in Illinois. She became a champion for her son and other individuals facing intellectual, physical, mental or emotional challenges. “I wanted Jamie to have different opportunities and said, ‘Hey, I want others to have those opportunities, too,’” Aguirre says.

When Jamie graduated from the special education program at Lakeland School in Elkhorn, Aguirre was surprised by the lack of options for his future. “I thought, ‘Gosh, we’ve got to do something about this,’” Aguirre says.

With that in mind and almost 10 years of volunteering with Special Olympics already under her belt, Aguirre founded the Walworth County Adult Special Olympics program.

Since then, her efforts have only grown stronger.

BUILDING A FOUNDATION

Walworth County Adult Special Olympics is a branch under the Special Olympics of Wisconsin, but it does not receive funding or resources from the parent organization. Instead, Aguirre works tirelessly to raise money for equipment, transportation, uniforms and other expenses year-round.

She founded the nonprofit in 1986 with seven athletes, and today, more than 200 from the region participate.

Individuals can choose from eight seasonal sports: bowling — which is recreational, not competitive — and volleyball in the fall; basketball in the winter; aquatics and track and field in the spring; and bocce ball, softball and tennis in the summer.

Traditionally, the tennis season culminates with a competition in August. However, reduced practice time due to poor weather conditions this past year led Aguirre to seek use of the indoor courts at the Lake Geneva Tennis Club, and beginning this year, the club will offer skills training year-round at no cost to the nonprofit. “Tennis is wonderful for hand-eye coordination,” Aguirre says. “I asked Paul Lauterbach at the Tennis Club to help because I wanted to take the program to another level.”

Some individuals choose their favorite sport while others compete in one each season, and a handful are involved in everything they are eligible for, Aguirre says. However, bocce ball, bowling and basketball generally draw the most participation.

Beyond the physical benefits, according to Aguirre, the structure of learning a sport, attending practice and competing on select weekends applies a crucial lesson in responsibility. “When you see them going to practices and going to competitions, you see what it can do for an individual and how it changes their life,” Aguirre says.

Athletes also learn team work, accountability, respect and social skills — traits that might be hard to come by in other settings. “They reap so many benefits from this program,” Aguirre says.

While the international Special Olympics offers a program for young athletes, ages 3 to 8, Walworth County’s chapter accepts anyone who is 8 and older. Right now, the local program includes individuals ranging in age from 14 to 65.

However, Aguirre has begun working on incorporating a starter program for kids who are even younger. “They’re starting at 3 and 4 years of age, just getting a racket in their hand, learning how to bounce a ball, getting a ball over the net,” Aguirre says. “I think it can be very instrumental to so many people to come in at a young age.”

A COLLABORATIVE EFFORT

In addition to Lake Geneva Tennis Club offering its space, Badger High School allows local Special Olympians to practice basketball and softball at the school at no cost, and Elkhorn High School donates the use of its track. However, that’s far from the only support the program receives.

The Geneva Lakes Family YMCA holds “Y nights” for the athletes once a week to teach the importance of exercise. Aguirre also seeks donations from various organizations throughout the year and hosts two major fundraisers. Her pitch to new donors often includes the fact that transportation for the program alone costs $9,000 annually.

“They always say, ‘What is it you need?’ and I’m not the person to say, ‘Give me $500 or $1,000,’” she says. “I say, ‘Whatever you want to give us, it is accepted.’”

In August, Aguirre hosts an informal pig roast and raffle at Lake Geneva’s Champs’ Sports Bar & Grill. When she began the fundraiser “many, many years” ago, it only brought in about $200. This year, the event netted more than $12,000.

Simple Café in Lake Geneva hosts the group’s second major fundraiser in October. During this campaign, Special Olympians take the spotlight to share with community members how the program has affected their lives, talk about state competitions and show off their medals.

Aguirre says there’s always a full house, and the event gets a great response. “It’s heartwarming to know you have all of these people that want to see you succeed because they know it’s benefiting so many people,” she says.

Being part of a small, tight-knit community also helps, according to Aguirre. “You get to know a lot of people who know you by your first name,” she says. “It’s a wonderful spot to live in.”

UNSUNG HEROES

With such a demanding task at hand, Aguirre cannot run the program on her own. Across all sports, the Walworth County Adult Special Olympics program has about 15 to 20 rotating volunteers. But according to Aguirre, she’s always looking for more. “Volunteers are the backbone of any organization,” she says.

In some cases, for instance, Special Olympians may need one-on-one attention. Community members can volunteer for a day — such as on-site the day of the bocce and basketball skills competitions at Badger High School – or they can become long-term volunteers who help at weekly practices.

“I’m just so indebted to these wonderful people who believe in this program and believe in these athletes,” Aguirre says. “That’s what makes it work. Those are the pillars of a great foundation, and it makes the lives of these individuals truly worthwhile.”

For the sake of the 200 athletes whose lives she touches on a weekly basis, Aguirre says she hopes the program continues forever.

She no longer worries about Jamie, who is 46 years old now and has worked at Grand Geneva Resort for about six years. For Aguirre, it’s humbling to see her hard work paying off.

“I’ve been volunteering with Special Olympics for 42 years,” she says. “You feel like everyone has a mission in life, and yep, this is mine.”

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