Special Olympics Illinois sports director, Jackie Walk, makes things possible

Jackie Walk and her athlete Emmerson Hjort at the Regional bowling competition.

Photo courtesy of Jackie Walk

Jackie Walk and her athlete Emmerson Hjort at the Regional bowling competition.

By Marissa Plescia, Staff writer

Since Jackie Walk was in fifth grade, she has worked with the Special Olympics. 

Her mom always volunteered and would bring Walk along. So, she too would often volunteer at different competitions. After graduating from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, she continued her work with the Special Olympics and took a job when her friend told her about an opening.

Now 38 years old, Walk is the sports director of Special Olympics Illinois Eastern Prairie Area 8, which covers Champaign, Piatt, Vermillion, Ford, Iroquois, Vermillion and Kankakee counties.

“It’s always been something that I’ve wanted to work with, and I finally got the opportunity,” Walk said.

Special Olympics Illinois has 17 sports for children and adults with disabilities to participate in. The events are year-round with Olympic-type sports.

“Part of the goal is really to get as many athletes involved in our program as possible,” Walk said. “We don’t charge athletes to participate, and we don’t just focus on sports.”

Walk has worked with the organization for eight years. She was the area director, but the company did some restructuring this year and she is now the sports director.

For her job, Walk oversees all the competitions in the region and helps with coach training, physicals for athletes and the wellness program. With the restructuring of the organization, Walk went from overseeing 600 athletes to 1,450.

Walk said it is an amazing experience to be part of the Special Olympics.

“I’ve been here and watched some of these athletes start when they were 8 years old and now they’re all getting their driver’s license and going to high school,” Walk said. “It’s just really cool to see them grow.”

Walk has a personal connection to the organization as well. Her cousin, Grant, did track and field for the Special Olympics, and she volunteered at his events. Her nephew’s friend, Victor, has Down syndrome, and Walk has witnessed their friendship firsthand through the Special Olympics.

“Now they’re both 13 years old and they’re still like the best of buds,” Walk said. “My nephew volunteers for the Special Olympics, and Victor is still an athlete.”

Walk’s favorite part of the organization is competition day where she gets see the athletes use their training and form friendships with kids from other towns.

“It’s really cool to get to see (teams) all come together and rekindle their friendships and seeing them compete,” Walk said.

One of Walk’s favorite memories of the organization is the time she was watching a bocce ball game with an older team playing a younger and less experienced team. She said the older team purposely threw the competition so they could help teach the other team how to compete.

Joanie Keyes is Walk’s supervisor and has worked for the organization for 27 years. Keyes said Walk is energetic and enthusiastic.

“She’s very focused on doing what’s best for the athletes and their families and providing good quality competition for the athletes,” Keyes said.

Kathleen Hjort and her daughter, Emmerson Williams, have witnessed Walk in action. Hjort is a basketball coach for the Special Olympics, and Williams is an athlete.

“Jackie is a superwoman,” Hjort said. “She’s just on the go all the time, trying to get new programs (and) everything organized. And in the midst of everything she does for the Special Olympics, she actually gets to know the athletes really well.”

Hjort and Williams said Walk genuinely cares for all the athletes, and they describe her as a friend to everyone.

“She’s amazing,” Williams said. “We love her.”

What Walk wants people to know about the Special Olympics is it is not just one competition. Events are always going on with all different types of sports. She also describes the organization as a family affair.

“We always say the Special Olympics is like a family,” Walk said. “When we have people emailing me wanting to get their children or grandchildren or whoever wants to get involved, I always end it with, ‘Welcome to the Special Olympics family,’ because it really is one big family.”

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