Ela Stoklosa came home to MacArthur Middle School in Prospect Heights Monday, and Sophia Cacioppo thinks she made a great impression.
Stoklosa, 21, talked about her experience as a Special Olympics athlete and asked students to quit using the "R" word, "retarded."
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The appearance at a school assembly by the young woman with Down syndrome was a culmination of a campaign at the school: "R-Word. Spread the word to end the word."
"How would you feel if someone made fun of you?" she asked. "If someone calls you Shorty or Four Eyes or any other name that makes fun of you, it doesn't feel very good does it?" said Stoklosa, reading a statement to the student body.
Sophia Cacioppo and her friend, Paige Palombizio, both 13 and from Arlington Heights, took training through Special Olympics.
"Looking around, I know most of the kids and some of them you could see in their eyes how the words got to them and made them feel," Sophia said.
Paige agreed "hearing it from a real live Special Olympian" made a difference.
As a global messenger for Illinois Special Olympics, Stoklosa described the honor of being on the state women's basketball team for the 2010 Special Olympics national games, where her team came in fourth.
Calling people by the "R" word is like "making fun of the color of someone's skin," Stoklosa said, adding it is very painful.
Stoklosa talks to groups around the Northwest suburbs, mentioning Northrop Grumman in Rolling Meadows, where "they gave me a big check" for Special Olympics.
She lives in Wheeling, works at the Lutheran Home in Arlington Heights and is finishing the transition program at Hersey High School.
Greg Guarrine, superintendent of Prospect Heights Elementary District 23, said he was proud of Stoklosa.
"I've known Ela since she was 3 years old," Guarrine said. "What a moving experience to see her get up in front of all those students at MacArthur and talk and give a wonderful presentation."
Megan Windsor, a special-education teacher who worked with Sophia and Paige on the campaign, said students don't realize why they shouldn't use the word until it's explained to them.
Even after videos and activities, Ela's appearance was important, she said.
"At this age they need a concrete representation. Ela made that connection to what we were doing a little bit better."
Sophia and Paige chose videos and programs to add to Monday's event and are already planning their program for next year when they will be in eighth grade.
"Next year we're going to do more fundraising for Special Olympics," Sophia said. "A lot of people like our T-shirts."
The front of the shirt says "Walk the Talk" and on the back is "Stomp the R word."