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Athletes pushed at Opportunity House

Khadija Purdom, 14, practices serving a volleyball during practice Monday at Opportunity House in Sycamore.
Khadija Purdom, 14, practices serving a volleyball during practice Monday at Opportunity House in Sycamore.
Special Olympics - Opportunity House

SYCAMORE – Kevin Koch is the kind of athlete who gives every sport a shot.

Koch, 36, enjoys playing basketball, soccer and softball through Opportunity House, a nonprofit rehabilitation center for people with disabilities. Koch is now playing volleyball and is set to play in the statewide Special Olympics volleyball competition Oct. 26.

As with every sport Koch plays, he does it to stay healthy and fit. 

“It’s fun, and I can talk to my friends,” he said.

Opportunity House serves more than 100 athletes with disabilities. Athletes across DeKalb County come to the center to play sports or train for competitions. They gain physical, mental and social benefits such as working in teams, building self-esteem and traveling. 

The athletes at the center play hard and love to compete.

“They live for it,” said Shannon Steinbis-Vanatta, coach for the center’s volleyball team. “It’s a social outlet. It’s fun.”

Opportunity House had a Special Olympics program for 17 years, but initially only offered team sports for adults. In 2003, they partnered with the Kishwaukee Special Recreation Association to offer eight sports throughout the year for athletes of all ages. 

Participation has grown over the years, said Marc Johnson, Special Olympics coordinator for Opportunity House.

“I do see some growth, and it’s a wonderful thing having our athletes involved,” he said. 

Special Olympics athletes with Opportunity House and KSRA compete in nine counties throughout northwestern Illinois. After athletes or teams win gold medals in local contests, they move on to state competitions in Bloomington-Normal, Decatur, Peoria, Rockford or Galena. 

This year, the program’s volleyball team will compete against other Special Olympics teams from around Illinois at the fall games at Harlem High School in Machesney Park. The team is comprised of 10 athletes, and they vary in age, gender and athletic skill. 

Steinbis-Vanatta said the team has been practicing twice a week since August. Although each player has different skills, the coaches will work with them closely to help them improve. The coaches never talk down to them and believe in motivating the players through encouragement, she said.

They also push the players to work hard. At Monday’s volleyball practice, players had to serve the volleyball over the net. The players who missed had to do push-ups and jumping jacks. 

“I am a firm believer in if you work hard, you will play,” Steinbis-Vanatta said.

The hard work doesn’t bother the players, who love showing off the medals they’ve won when the work pays off, Steinbis-Vanatta said. 

Team member Mary Cosentino, 38, is no stranger to volleyball. She said she used to play the game in Chicago and is excited about the upcoming competition. When asked what she looked forward to the most, she only had one thing to say.

“To win,” she said. 

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