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Starved Rock Area Special Olympics director Cheryl DePaepe holds flowers she was given at the 37th Spring Games on May 3 at Hall High School in Spring Valley. DePaepe became involved in Special Olympics 42 years ago and has served as area director for 37 years. Provided photo
Editor's Note: This is the first in a summer series in which the NewsTribune will write about people who do good work in sports.
In 1972 after graduating from Illinois State University and taking a job as a special education teacher at Putnam County schools, Cheryl DePaepe receive a life-changing letter.
“We received a letter informing us about the Special Olympics program and inviting us to get involved,” DePaepe said. “I talked it over with my students and their parents and they were interested, and that’s how we got started.”
Forty-two years later, DePaepe is still very much involved in the Special Olympics as the Starved Rock Area director.
“I knew that it was an organization that I had a great passion for and knew that I would be involved with as long as I possibly could,” DePaepe said. “Did I think 40-some years later I would still be here? You never know, but I’ve always been very proud of my involvement in Special Olympics.”
When she became involved, DePaepe was a teacher/coach taking a small group of athletes to Soldier Field in Chicago.
For a couple more years, local Special Olympics athletes were sent to Chicago for competition before being redirected to Monmouth.
As numbers grew, DePaepe and other area special education teachers formed an area competition.
Numbers continued to grow throughout Illinois, and the state was divided into more areas.
In 1975, Starved Rock Area was formed and DePaepe and Marilyn Carr were named co-directors.
Until 10 years ago, DePaepe taught and served as volunteer director. After retiring from education a decade ago, DePaepe has been the full-time director.
During her tenure with the Special Olympics, she’s helped the Starved Rock Area develop into an organization that serves 560 athletes, has more than 500 volunteers in its database, works with 45 agencies and offers more than 10 sports — which DePaepe said gives the athletes “self confidence and assuredness” while providing families activities they can to together.
“She’s everything. She is Special Olympics in the area,” volunteer Roberta Henson said last week while in the office helping DePaepe prepare for the Golf Individual Skills Qualifier on July 7. “She’s an awesome area director. She does a superb job of organizing all the events. People are very willing to come out to work for Cheryl because of her attitude. She truly loves the athletes and puts forth everything she can do.”
As area director, DePaepe has a long list of duties.
She’s responsible for organizing various athletic competitions and fundraisers, finding facilities, coordinating volunteers, getting equipment, filling out paperwork and promoting the organization and events among many other duties.
“It was difficult (to juggle teaching and Special Olympics), but for several years we just did a once-a-year track meet, so it was really busy right around that time but for the rest of the year, it wasn’t too bad,” DePaepe said. “When we started to add sports, that’s when it became more of a challenge to get everything done, but I’ve had a wonderful group of volunteers — many of whom have been with me all these years and helped me with various day-to-day activities needed to get those events ready.”
DePaepe said the Special Olympics are “worth all the time we put into it,” and said being an area director is “a very rewarding job.”
It’s all because of the athletes and the volunteers.
“The relationships I’ve developed with the volunteers, the athletes, the coaches, I can’t even describe what it means to me and it means to the organization,” DePaepe said. “It’s just a wonderful organization, a wonderful group of people, and once you start, you’re hooked.”