Gerry Henaghan was 9 years old when she started volunteering at the Special Olympics.
"We were at Marquette Park and I had a cousin competing, so my sister and I started helping out," Henaghan says. "That was 1976."
She never stopped helping, and today she fills the role of special recreation manager at the Chicago Park District, which is actually more like a dozen roles.
"I oversee all recreation for people with disabilities," Henaghan says. "I started out as a South Side girl who didn't realize there was life past Madison (Street). I've met some tremendous people."
From her modest, bustling office in Kenwood's Kennicott Park, Henaghan runs the Special Olympics, adaptive sports, Paralympic sports, sports for the deaf and hard of hearing and all recreational, competitive and cultural programs for individuals with disabilities in Chicago.
She launched the city's wheelchair basketball program. She oversees the Valor Games, a three-day event for veterans and service members with physical and visual disabilities, run with the help of World Sport Chicago and the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs. (This year's Valor Games Midwest will be held Aug. 12 to 14; go to http://www.worldsportchicago.org for details.)
"It's more rewarding than a paycheck," she says.
The Special Olympics, which originated in Chicago in 1968, hosted its 45th set of games in May at Eckersall Stadium on the South Side. Henaghan was, of course, there for all of it.
"It's actually hard for me to work in an office and not be in the gym anymore with the athletes," she says. "One of my favorite moments was with a kid who had cerebral palsy. It took me five years, but I taught him how to swim.
"I miss that," she says. "But now I'm pushing the papers and I'm doing budgets and I'm making it all happen."
Following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: How has the culture changed since you first started working with Special Olympics?
A: The biggest change is the acceptance of people with disabilities. It's still a struggle every day to educate people, but I see the impact and the acceptance and the focus now on what they can do instead of on their disability.
Q: Do you hear later from athletes you've coached or supported?
A: There are several Special Olympics athletes that I grew up with at Marquette that are still in our park district programs and our Special Olympics competitions, so I see them often. Several of the athletes that I coached at Blackhawk Park are still active as well. One young kid stopped going to the park when I came to work in the office. I finally connected with him last year on Facebook, and I was able to have him apply and work as an intern last summer. He has been actively participating again in our program at Kosciuszko Park, and his family is delighted that he has been reunited with old friends and is being physically and socially active.
Q: What do you learn from the athletes?
A: When I was coaching Special Olympics, I really believe I learned to be a better person, not judgmental and trying to focus on what we can do, as opposed to what we can't do.
Q: What's the biggest setback you've overcome, personal or professional?
A: My father went through a cancer scare a few years back. I was able to take some time off to help him get through this. I am the only one of my siblings without children and (with) a job that is supportive when your family needs help. He had prostate cancer and is proud to say he has been cancer free for 10 years.
Q: You've lived in Chicago your whole life. How has it shaped you?
I am the youngest of seven children and my parents emigrated from Ireland and met here in Chicago. Between a large Irish family, living on the South Side, the park district, Special Olympics and now all my new friends in the adaptive sports world and the deaf community, I am very fortunate to have met so many amazing individuals that I can call my friends. Chicago is a unique city and a model for the world when it comes to the continued support and strides made to support individuals with disabilities.
Q: Who is your personal hero?
A: Both of my parents. Both of them came to America as young adults — my mother was only 17. They came to this country to make a better life for themselves. My mother was on a boat for eight days to get here with her cousin, who was even younger. She arrived working a full-time job and taking night classes. My father, upon arriving in America, had to sign up to commit to serving the country if we went to war. A few months later, he found himself drafted and heading to Korea. I have such respect for my father, going to war for a country he basically just met. They met here in Chicago and worked hard for all of us to have everything we needed, including a good education, good work ethic and respect for each other.
My father is 87 years old and my mother celebrated her 80th birthday this year. Both, I am proud to say, are going strong and staying very busy.
Q: What's your ideal way to spend a day off?
A: With family. I have 13 amazing nieces and nephews, and spending time with them and family is my priority. I also enjoy spending time with friends. I am fortunate to say I have a lot of amazing friends, and some that I have been friends with for over 30 years.