Joan Camper said she's noticed big changes in her 20-year-old son, Grant, since he started participating in competitive track events more than 10 years ago.
"It gave him a huge boost in self-confidence," said Camper, a Carol Stream resident. "It improved his social skills. But it also showed him how to accept losing, too. He's become a better sport now. He likes cheering teammates on."
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Grant was one of about 140 children and young adults with special needs who participated Sunday in the annual Western DuPage Special Recreation Association Track Meet held at North Central College in Naperville.
The athletes competed in a number of running, walking and jumping events, along with tennis-ball and softball throwing contests. Spectators in the stands at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium smiled, clapped and cheered as each event unfolded.
The meet served as a warm-up for a larger Illinois Special Olympics competition that will be held in Naperville this coming weekend.
"Some of the participants are new to this kind of competition, so today's meet gives them a great chance to see what it's like before (the Special Olympics games)," said Sherry Manschot, WDSRA's marketing manager.
Julie Evans of Glen Ellyn said her 13-year-old son, Miles, has been competing in track events for six years.
"The experience has been invaluable," Evans said. "It's helped his work ethic, his discipline, his confidence."
Like Camper, Evans said competing against and with his peers also has made her son a more supportive teammate.
"He loves to be a fan now," she said.
Judy Garza of Joliet watched her 19-year-old daughter, Gaby, complete a 10-meter assisted walk to the roar of cheers from the audience.
"It's such a great feeling to see her out there," Garza said.
WDSRA is a cooperative extension of nine park districts in DuPage County: Bloomingdale, Carol Stream, Glen Ellyn, Naperville, Roselle, Warrenville, West Chicago, Wheaton and Winfield.