Smiling faces, lit by the sun and from within, were all around the Marklund at Mill Creek Campus in Geneva Saturday as its 96 severely disabled residents participated in the 60-year-old agency's annual Summer Games.
This is Marklund's own version of the Special Olympics since none of its residents can qualify for due to their need for assistance during the events, said Director of Marketing and Communications Dawn Lassiter-Brueske.
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With Kane County Cougars mascot Ozzie and Chick-fil-A's cow mascot cheering on both teams, the Games began with a brief ballgame on Marklund's rubber-surfaced baseball field.
Former Chicago Cubs player Rich Nye -- now a part-time veterinarian in Lisle -- threw out the first pitch and helped throughout the event.
Nye said the closest to sports the Marklund residents get for much of the year is being able to watch it on TV or listen to it on the radio.
"I'm sure they would have a desire to participate," Nye said. "This allows them to do as much as they can do."
The next event -- and always the biggest hit each year -- is the wheelchair races in the parking lot. The excitement of the adrenaline rush is evident among the residents of all ages.
These residents and the event's 150 volunteers then visited the "Diamond Mine"-themed fun house in the classroom building, in honor of Marklund's diamond anniversary this year.
The day is a particularly bright one even amid the miracle that first brought 49-year-old Jeanette Ascolani to Marklund in the late '70s, said her sister Caroline Noonan of Darien.
"She just loves people and being around people," Noonan said of her sister. "There's so many faces here today she can't just concentrate on one person."
Though born with a mental disability, Ascolani was physical able and even hyperactive until a 1978 surgery to fix a heart valve went wrong and robbed her of her ability to walk, Noonan recalled with glistening eyes.
The family tried to care for her at home for a year but was nearly at the breaking point before the opportunity arose to move her to Marklund's original ranch home in West Chicago.
"You just knew in your heart she was going to be well cared for," Noonan said.
As good as that facility was, the Geneva campus that opened in 2002 is even better, a "Taj Mahal" in comparison, Noonan said.
Marklund President and CEO Gil Fonger said the agency feels a strong kinship with its residents and loves the fact it's able to bring peace and love back to the hearts of families broken by their hardships. The only disappointment is that there is currently a 15-year waiting list, he said.
As stable as state funding has been in comparison to some other services, it would be about twice as much in such states as New York or Pennsylvania, Fonger said.
Still, Marklund aims to exceed its requirements and private donors help take its services beyond the "sheets and eats" provided by the state, Fonger said.
Virginia Fritz of St. Charles is 69 years old and was finally able to get her 34-year-old son Mike, who has cerebral palsy, into Marklund only about two years ago.
Until then, Mike went by bus every day to a daytime facility that had no residential component. Fritz and her husband, who died six years ago, looked after Mike's physical needs at home entirely on their own before he was accepted to Marklund.
"I said, 'You don't know how long I've been waiting!'" Fritz said.