The Special Olympics Chicago (SOC) Spring Games are returning this year—and so is a neighborhood tradition that sends local athletes off to the games in style.

Kids Helping Kids Day is being held at several elementary schools during the week of May 3, when the Spring Games take place.

Students will wear red at dress-down days and raise funds for SOC, and they’ve created personalized signs cheering on athletes from the Mt. Greenwood Special Recreation Association (MGSRA).

Maureen O’Malley helped organize the first fundraiser in 2017, and she won’t forget how excited the athletes were to see their signs at Mt. Greenwood Park.

“That was a huge hit the first year,” O’Malley said. “The kids absolutely loved that. They were so excited to see their names on the wall in the hallways. That was a really big deal.”

The games were canceled last year due to the pandemic and are returning this year in a modified format. The opening ceremonies were held virtually on May 3, and in-person track and field events will take place at Dunbar Park, 2900 S. Calumet Ave., from Tuesday, May 4, through Thursday, May 6. The closing ceremonies will be held virtually on Friday, May 7.

MGSRA Coordinator Lisa Mulcrone said the entire wall of a hallway in the park fieldhouse is covered with supportive signs, which were also made for participants who learn virtually.

The gesture of support certainly fires up her athletes, who will compete in the Spring Games on May 6.

“It’s pretty inspiring,” Mulcrone said. “It’s really nice. It’s such cute things all the kids wrote.”

Schools participating in Kids Helping Kids Day this year include St. John Fisher, Christ the King, St. Cajetan, St. Christina, St. Barnabas, Most Holy Redeemer, Cassell and Clissold.

The supportive signs will also be displayed on a fence at Dunbar Park, where athletes will pose for photos. For the entire week, they will feel like they’re on cloud nine.

“It gets them excited,” Mulcrone said. “They feel like they’re superstars. It just makes them feel good.”

As a speech therapist, O’Malley works with people with special needs, and she lauded Mulcrone for her hardworking approach that always keeps MGSRA participants busy. During the pandemic, Mulcrone has turned to online activities, but she’s looking forward to participants returning to the park in June. She’s also beginning a program for 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds.

Financial support helped her construct an MGSRA fitness space in a park building that was fortunately not seriously damaged by a recent fire.

O’Malley said supporting SOC this year is especially vital because fundraising events have been altered during the public health crisis.

She has long admired the opportunities that SOC provides athletes.

“I just have seen how much Special Olympics benefits our kids and our families,” O’Malley said. “It’s such a good support for our families, especially our younger kids that are just trying to learn about this new world that they’ve been dropped into. I just really see the benefits that are so far reaching that Special Olympics can provide.”

Local students have also volunteered to work alongside Special Olympics athletes, O’Malley said. Kids helping kids isn’t just one day, but a mindset for life.

“I think the students learned some valuable lessons,” she said, “like exactly what Special Olympics is, and how much these kids are just like you and want to play sports and have fun and excel.”

For more information, visit sochicago.org.