It wasn't so long ago that Juan Laverde didn't give much thought to young people with intellectual disabilities playing sports.
After all, how good could they be? How much could they really care?
Then the Naperville resident got involved in a Peer Partners program at Neuqua Valley High School, where kids with and without disabilities participate in the same gym classes.
After a while, it turns out, the kids from different backgrounds not only become friends, they also come to understand there is much they can learn from one another.
His views changed even more when he became a peer coach for Special Olympics and began to appreciate the athleticism and sportsmanship of all the youngsters -- those with disabilities and those without -- on his unified soccer team.
Watching the boys and girls ranging in age from around 10 to 18 competing on the soccer field was something of a revelation.
"I was totally impressed at how good they were," he says, "and how much passion they have for the sport."
Laverde, who just completed his freshman year at the University of Illinois, will travel with the unified soccer team to New Jersey for next week's 2014 Special Olympics USA Games.
As a peer coach, he'll perform a couple roles.
First, he'll be in charge of social media, so you'll see his stuff regularly on Facebook and Twitter. Second, he'll serve as a mentor, somebody to whom the players can relate.
He knows what he's talking about when it comes to Special Olympics. He's vice president of the Special Olympics Club at the U of I and he's lobbied Congress on behalf of the Special Olympics movement.
"It drives my professional aspirations to work in Special Olympics," he says on the organization's website, "and helps me see that everyone has incredible potential."
He says the coming week will be an incredible experience for the roughly 3,500 athletes who will participate and all those who support them.
"It's a really cool opportunity for all the kids involved," he says. "It's an eye-opening experience to work together, to play a sport, to be able to travel and being able to become a leader at school."