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Artist, janitor and athlete Amelia Hernandez, 62, still competing, training daily in Little Village

She’s been a part of the Special Olympics since the first games were held at Soldier Field in 1968.

Amelia Hernandez has competed in every single Special Olympics event since the first international summer games at Soldier Field in 1968.

Her mother, Connie Hernandez, recalls that when Amelia was a child, her speech was noticeably delayed and she didn’t feel her daughter was ready to go to school. But upon turning 5, Amelia surprised everyone when she started talking, and at the recommendation of a psychiatrist, Connie sent her to school.

But that didn’t last long. Amelia wouldn’t stay in her seat or concentrate in class, her teachers complained.

One day Connie got a call from the Board of Education to inform her about a Chicago Park District program at Dvorak Park, in Pilsen, for children with special needs. Amelia and her mom were living by Taylor Street on the Near West Side at the time and moved to 18th and Racine, closer to the park.

“When I got there and saw all those kids just like her, I thought, wow, I wasn’t alone,” Connie said holding back tears. “ ... I thought, ‘This is the beginning of a life,’ and it was because she became real independent and everything.”

Connie met other mothers who were active in getting schooling for their kids with disabilities, among them Guadalupe Reyes, the founder of El Valor organization in Pilsen, which would become instrumental in Amelia’s life path toward self-sufficiency.

“At the park I started running a lot, then I tried the softball throw, and jumping,” said Amelia, now 62. “I just kept moving up, moving up to different sports.”

The Special Olympics gave her a uniform and allowed her to compete with peers from out of state who shared the same ability. Though Connie recalls games being poorly attended at first, except for politicians and the media, the event has been a consistent pillar in Amelia’s development and today thousands of children and adults partake in the games year-round.

Amelia Hernandez shows off some drawings she’s done at the Piotrowski Fieldhouse including one of the Chicago Blackhawks playing the Boston Bruins.
Brian Ernst/ Sun-Times

Amelia trains every day and also does a lot of painting, and loves making pictures of athletes.

And she works part-time at El Valor’s Little Village location, doing maintenance work in the children’s center. “I like it,” she says. She hops on the 60 bus which takes her from El Valor’s offices in Pilsen to its location in Little Village.

“She’s always been enthusiastic about life, whether it’s sports or anything, she always puts her heart fully into whatever she’s doing,” said David Donahue, a former employee of El Valor, who has been her coach on and off for 21 years. “She’s never been known not to try anything at least once.”

At Piotrowski Park, in Little Village, where he now coaches, he prepares Amelia and other adults with intellectual or physical disabilities for the Special Olympics. The Chicago Park District has over 25 parks with programs for people with disabilities, for the vision and hearing impaired and for veterans.

Amelia has competed in track, power lifting (she can hoist 165 pounds), soccer, basketball, volleyball and bowling. Her favorite position to play during floor hockey is goalie.

Her dream? To meet goalie Corey Crawford of the Blackhawks.

Amelia keeps things in perspective.

“I have friends who cannot play sports because they are walking with a cane, with a walker, some are in a wheelchair, some friends cannot walk or run. I could run, I could do everything. I move pretty well,” she said.

She adds: “I never stop. I just keep going.”

Her mom said she’s barely ever home between her park activities, her job, and competing in games out of state. Many times she comes home with a trophy.

“I don’t know, without the opportunities she had, I think Amelia would probably be sitting in the corner like she used to be before she started going to the park. She used to sit in the corner on the floor and play with marbles. Or maybe she’d be gone, you never know,” she said.

Amelia Hernandez, 62, a longtime athlete stands in front of a photo of her younger self competing at her first Special Olympics event.
Brian Ernst/Sun-Times