On Saturday night the Special Olympics celebrated the 40th anniversary of its founding with a gala entitled “Inspire Greatness” at the Hilton Chicago. The event commemorated the first Special Olympics competition (a track-and-field and aquatics event for people with intellectual disabilities held at Soldier Field on July 19, 1968) that Chicago native Anne McGlone Burke, a pioneer in the field of recreational therapy, and friend Eunice Kennedy Shriver created along with the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation.
To plan the anniversary gala, Special Olympics event manager Suzi Berner said she started “with any partner or sponsor that truly understood what our organization is all about.” One year and 50 volunteers later, Berner and her team organized an event filled with reminders of the cause at hand.
The gala took place in the Hilton's 21,996-square-foot International Ballroom, which was sectioned off for the evening. Some 500 supporters, sponsors, and athletes began arriving at 5 p.m. for the cocktail reception, where two portable bars positioned at opposite sides of the room served as dividers and offered wine or mixed drinks. Hilton Banquets catered the entire event, starting with passed hors d'oeuvres such as cheese-stuffed artichokes, shrimp wontons, and prosciutto-wrapped asparagus. Event production company Ivan Carlson & Associates dressed high and low tables with black linens and red table runners.
For the silent auction that took place during the cocktail reception, event organizers used an electronic bidding device provided by EasyBid. Bids were either placed with a volunteer holding the device or at one of the bidding kiosks; progress could be monitored live from four screens in the cocktail area. Standout items up for bid included four World Series tickets with airfare, 2009 Grammy Award tickets with an after-party, and a private jet to see the White Sox play the Yankees in New York. However, with new gadgets, there is always room for a glitch, and in the end, results were tabulated the good old-fashioned way—by hand.
At the sound of the gong, guests found their way to their dinner tables. The evening's presentations began with M.C. Rob Johnson from CBS-2 taking the stage, while 40 athletes from the past 40 years processed into the ballroom from opposite sides. President and C.E.O. of Special Olympics-Illinois Doug Snyder and chairman Timothy Shriver continued with welcome speeches while guests dined on a salad of bibb and butter lettuce with lola rosa, enoki mushrooms, a goat cheese medallion, and citrus segments, accompanied by a gazpacho shooter.
Before the live auction (led by Leslie Hindman of the Chicago Auction House) kicked off, a touching eight-minute film presentation highlighting Special Olympics achievements throughout the years played on two large screens hanging from opposite sides of the stage.
After dessert came dancing—this year to classic tunes by Rich Daniels and the City Lights Orchestra—which lasted until close to midnight. Upon leaving, Special Olympics athletes handed guests a box of Frango Mints, donated by Macy’s, an ongoing supporter.