A Texas Two-Step: Partnering for Good in Central Illinois

Illinois Ability Sports is filling needs across the region through inclusive sports and other charitable efforts.

by Evan Altman with Kristen Nall
Ribbon-cutting for the KCCO Ability Field, 2015. Now based in Havana, Illinois Ability Sports serves low-income families and children with disabilities through a wide range of charitable efforts.
Ribbon-cutting for the KCCO Ability Field, 2015. Now based in Havana, Illinois Ability Sports serves low-income families and children with disabilities through a wide range of charitable efforts.

After months of searching, John Lorek and his wife Monica found a home in Havana that was perfect for their two children with disabilities. In June of 2017, the family loaded up their U-Haul and made the move from Williamson County, Texas. Little did their new neighbors in central Illinois know that the Loreks were bringing several million dollars with them. Well, sort of.

Illinois Ability Sports Is Born
John Lorek’s philanthropic fire was ignited nearly a decade ago and burst into full flame when he established East Wilco Challenger Sports on June 23, 2011. That date was doubly fitting because it was his son Ryne’s fifth birthday (Yes, he’s named after the Cubs superstar!), as well as the 27th anniversary of the legendary “Sandberg game” that vaulted the second baseman into superstardom.

Lorek saw a need in his community for a sports complex that children with disabilities could call home—something designed specifically for them. Along with a $200,000 grant from Chive Charities and a $150,000 GoFundMe campaign, they partnered with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation to build the KCCO Ability Field for those children. One year later, East Wilco Challenger Sports was awarded a $180,000 grant from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas. Working in partnership with KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit organization that helps communities build playgrounds for children, they were able to build a specialized inclusive ability playground with a rubberized base adjacent to the ballpark.

All the while, Lorek was developing ties to Illinois. For two years, he worked in conjunction with the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association and the Foss Park District in North Chicago to stage baseball clinics for area children. His family would fly to Chicago from Texas each summer to host the camps and make a mini-vacation out of it. Those vacations eventually pulled them to central Illinois permanently, and Illinois Ability Sports (IAS) was born. 

As they unpacked in the summer of 2017, Lorek was already planning charity events. His first step was to contact Matthew Plater, Superintendent of Schools for Havana CUSD #126, about hosting the first-ever NFL Play 60 inclusion football camp for students in the school district. Soon after school started, they held the camp with a few former NFL players—including the great Priest Holmes, who flew from Texas to Peoria to participate. Over the past several years, the charity has evolved to encompass far more than just sports.

Illinois Ability Sports
NFL Play 60 inclusion football camp in Havana with Priest Holmes, 2017

Expanding Through Partnerships
The formation of partnerships with several local and national organizations has enabled Illinois Ability Sports to host expanded toy and clothing drives during the holiday season. Under Lorek’s guidance, they’ve distributed 2,000 stuffed animals from Peoria-area PetSmart stores, 3,000 pairs of Bombas socks, and 300 winter coats from Operation Warm during Christmas parades in Canton, Havana and Beardstown.

IAS was blessed with another KaBoom! grant in the spring of 2019, partnering with Keurig Dr Pepper to raise most of the funds for a beautiful, NFL Play 60-themed playground behind Havana Junior High School. The remaining $15,000 for the project came from a fundraising cruise on Lake Michigan organized by some of Lorek’s Chicago friends. More than 250 people danced the night away to help children they’d almost certainly never get the chance to meet, although a couple dozen did come down to help with construction of the playground.

Last summer, John’s two children held a 50/50 raffle at the Central Illinois Dragway during the “Funny Car Chaos” event to raise money for the Ronald McDonald House being built in Peoria. The kids were blessed to see their names on the “Wall of Hope” and attend the grand opening event for the building that December.

IAS’ charitable efforts expanded again last year by securing a 12-month contract to pick up donated items from three area department stores on a weekly basis. Those donations will be distributed to families in need every Saturday through October 2020. IAS also received an Amazon truckload donation of household items with a fair market value of $300,000 in various supplies. While the distribution of those items was put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the plan is to hand everything out in August to 220 families in central Illinois.

Illinois Ability Sports has also received thousands of donated paperback books over the past 10 months, working in partnership with Illinois State Troopers to distribute them to regional VA hospitals. Some have already been sent to a location in Chicago, and thousands more will head to St. Louis once the pandemic guidelines allow for it.

That’s not the only effort that has been reworked in light of the ongoing pandemic. The first annual Havana Shine Prom, a celebration for individuals with disabilities, was initially scheduled for this past April but was moved to September and renamed the Havana Fall Formal. Held in conjunction with the Havana Park District, the event gives guests the chance to dance, socialize and be escorted through town by a group of Illinois State Troopers and other local law enforcement agencies.

Illinois Ability Sports
Ryne Lorek with Priest Holmes

Food Distribution In Mason County
Some needs, however, can’t wait. After receiving a call from Greg Griffin, Mason County’s emergency management officer, IAS filed the required paperwork to add food distribution to its articles of incorporation. This allowed the organization to receive food from Midwest Food Bank to help local food pantries stock nonperishable food items in the old ALCO building in Havana, which Neiman Foods is letting them use free of charge. 

Finally, thanks to a $3,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Central Illinois, IAS was able to start a summer weekend food backpack program for 120 children in the Goofy Ridge, Buzzville, Bath and Kilbourne areas. Amy Yoakum and Betty Deford deliver to the Bath-area children, Doug Pratt of Mad Jack’s Bar & Grill in Kilbourne handles that territory, and the Goofy Ridge Church delivers to the children of Goofy Ridge and Buzzville each Saturday. In June, on the first Saturday of the program, they were able to bless over 400 individuals with USDA “Farm to Family” food items, along with the weekend food backpacks for the children.

In total, Illinois Ability Sports is poised to provide over $750,000 in goods and services to central Illinois communities in 2020. Not bad for an outfit that came up from the Lone Star State just over three years ago. PM

For more information on Illinois Ability Sports and how you can get involved, find them on Facebook.

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