LAKE IN THE HILLS – James Williams is a confident man. At 30, he is married, a 14-year employee of Jewel/Osco, and a decorated athlete.
With a condition often referred to as educable mentally handicapped, there was a time, however, when Williams’ future was uncertain.
“I don’t know where he’d be if the Special Olympics events hadn’t lifted his spirits,” said his mother, Candi Santini of Lake in the Hills.
On Sunday, Williams will help support the organization that dramatically affected his life during the 25th annual Illinois Law Enforcement Torch Run.
More than 3,000 police officers from across the state along with Special Olympics athletes will carry the Flame of Hope nearly 1,500 miles this weekend through their communities to the Opening Ceremonies for the Illinois Summer Games on June 10.
“I like doing the run every year because it helps benefit the Special Olympics, and it is a way for me to contribute,” Williams said.
Williams, of Oakwood Hills, encountered a difficult time during his freshman year at Algonquin’s Jacobs High School – it was the first time someone called him “retard.”
“James is intellectually underdeveloped,” Santini said. “Basically his reasoning skills and maturity are low for his age group.”
In elementary school, Williams performed well. He worked hard, and his teachers and classmates never used the words “disability” or “retard,” Santini said.
“His older siblings didn’t, either,” she added. “They just knew that their brother didn’t understand things the same way they did. He just required more explanation.”
In high school, things changed. Williams, a tall, stocky teen who was good at sports, went out for the football team.
“Everybody makes the team, but not everyone is accepted,” Santini said. “They knocked his books down and called him names. The better he did, the more they didn’t want him to play.”
Santini remembers clearly the day when her son came home and asked her why she had never told him that he was a “retard.”
“That was one of the hardest talks to have with him. ... He had never been called that in all his years,” she said. “I cried myself to sleep because I wanted things to be good for him.”
When basketball season came, Williams decided not to try out for the high school team. Instead, he became more involved in Northern Illinois Special Recreation Association and Illinois Special Olympics.
“In his words, the only names he got called were ‘captain’ and ‘Mr. Incredible,’ ”
Santini said. “He felt really accepted and appreciated on the teams.”
Since his freshman year, Williams has developed into a leader and a role model for his peers. He has won several medals for track and swimming events and is the first person to reach out to fellow athletes if they are down.
Williams’ success has earned him the honor of being a Special Olympics Global Messenger – chosen to spread the message and vision of Special Olympics through speeches and site visits.
On Sunday, Williams will run with Algonquin Police Officer Chris Filippini.
Filippini has participated in the fundraiser event alongside Williams since 1989 and said he’s “hooked for life.”
“Special Olympics promotes awareness,” Filippini said. “In the Special Olympics, an athlete will always say, ‘I can’ and is always willing to try.”
Once you see a Special Olympics event, he said, you never think of challenge the same way again.
If you go
What: Law Enforcement Torch Run.
When: 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Sunday.
Funds raised: Law enforcement agencies throughout the county, including Algonquin, Lake in the Hills, Crystal Lake, McHenry, Barrington Hills, Fox Lake, the McHenry County Sheriff’s Department and McHenry County Conservation District, have raised more than $750,000 for Special Olympics over the past 22 years, Algonquin Police Officer Chris Filippini said.