Vanessa Sandoval was a freshman at Hoffman Estates High School when she became intrigued by the idea of giving back to the community.
It was during the school's "Cupcakes For a Cause" event in which students, staff and others baked and sold cupcakes to benefit programs such as the Special Olympics.
"I couldn't really describe it," said Sandoval, who graduated from Hoffman Estates High in May. "It was very fun to be around."
Sandoval soon discovered participating in the Special Olympics was her ticket to give back to those who needed it most. After speaking with Amy Longmore, a special-education teacher and coach at the high school, Vanessa became involved with the program locally.
Now Sandoval, 18, of Hoffman Estates will head to New Jersey this week to play as a unified partner on the Illinois Special Olympics soccer team that will be competing Special Olympics 2014 USA Games June 14-21. The team features a "unified" roster made up of athletes with and without disabilities. Partners are those without intellectual disabilities.
Sandoval said she chose soccer because she's been playing it since she was 8 years old, and even played on her high school squad.
"She just brings great energy and friendship to the team," Longmore said.
Next up, Sandoval said she will study nursing for one year at Harper College and then head off to either Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville or Illinois State University to finish up. For her, nursing is another way to follow a path of caring for others.
"I just love helping people," Sandoval said. "My future career is to be a nurse, so I would say helping others would be my hobby."
She also hopes to continue her involvement as a unified partner.
"It's all about meeting new people and having fun in general," Sandoval said.