Special Olympics Illinois president overseeing his last games after 22 years

2011-06-11T15:45:00Z 2011-06-12T17:10:55Z Special Olympics Illinois president overseeing his last games after 22 yearsBy Steve Hoffman | shoffman@pantagraph.com pantagraph.com

NORMAL -- As Doug Snyder pondered his last State Summer Games in Normal as president of Special Olympics Illinois, there was one thing he appreciated most about his 22 years on the job.

"In this job, virtually every day somebody says thank you," said Snyder, who is scheduled to retire at the end of August.

"You take a volunteer that you literally worked to death in 90-degree weather for 12 hours, and at the end of the day they say, 'Can I do this again?' That's just humbling, quite honestly."

The Summer State Games began Friday at Illinois State University's Hancock Stadium and Horton Fieldhouse in Normal, and the event continues through Sunday.

Snyder has done what he was hired to do more than two decades ago: build a business plan for an already successful, respected organization. In that time, Special Olympics Illinois has gone from mostly volunteer management to a statewide staff of 72 full-time employees in 20 offices. The budget has gone from $1.5 million to nearly $10 million annually.

"When I look back over the last 22 years, I look at the evolution of Special Olympics as a sustainable business whose product is a quality experience for the athlete and their family rather than just a happenstance occasional activity," Snyder said Saturday as he visited with families, athletes and other supporters at ISU.

On Saturday, Snyder could not take more than a few steps without receiving a hug and a heartfelt goodbye. One of those came from Katherine Wargo of Thayer, a volunteer for 30 years.

"He's been super all the way around," said Wargo. "When my son was in a car wreck, this guy (Snyder) just took over and made sure everything was OK. He's been super in my book, and I wish him the best."

Jerry Parsons of Normal has been a local Special Olympics volunteer since 1987. As a longtime coach who helped at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and the Pan Am Games in 1987, he graduated from the athletic side of Special Olympics to become a board member last fall. That has given him a wider perspective on the organization.

"I have been impressed after joining the board because I only had one side of it," said Parsons, a retired University High School coach. "I never really understood the tremendous complexity of running a business of that size. There's so much going on behind the scenes, like raising money and organizing all these events."

Those activities now total 165 each year for special needs youths across the state, culminating in the State Summer Games this weekend that drew around 3,800 competitors for events ranging from traditional track and field and gymnastics to power lifting and bocce ball. Add in 3,000 volunteers, 1,700 coaches, and parents and family, and it results in around 10,000 visitors to the Twin Cities the second weekend of June.

Snyder's organizational skill has spread to the athletic side as well by making sure there were set standards that applied to all Special Olympics competitions statewide.

"When I came in, it was a very successful program, but had evolved in a very local, grassroots structure, so simple things such as standards were different everywhere," said Snyder. "We wanted the athlete in Carbondale to have the same experience as the athlete in Chicago."

Julie Morris of Jacksonville brought her 22-year-old son Bradley Phillips to the state games for the first time this weekend, and she said she was "overwhelmed. I knew there would be 3,800 athletes, but it's still overwhelming to see it in person. But it's nice. I've been looking forward to it all week."

Still, even with all the talk of running Special Olympics as a business with a plan, Snyder is quick to pass on credit for the organization's growth to its employees and volunteers.

"I've never been involved with anything where everyone checks their ego at the door. Everybody's here to make a difference for the athletes, and that's rewarding," said Snyder.

Snyder said he and wife Nancy will travel some when he retires at the end of August. A national search has begun for his replacement, and interviews for a new president have started.

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