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An SHS audiology student performs a hearing test on a child at MedFest, hosted at the Wintrust Sports Complex.
Natalie Gustafson, 2nd year Audiology student, performs a hearing test on a child at MedFest, hosted at the Wintrust Sports Complex.

SHS, RST students bring volunteer force to 'MedFest'


The stage was set at Wintrust Sports Complex in the Village of Bedford Park—a suburb of Chicago—when nearly 600 Special Olympics athletes from across the state began to stream in. 

With the help of a substantial volunteer staff, including more than 25 students from the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, many of the athletes left the facility ready to play. 

As part of the 22nd annual “MedFest” event, hundreds descended on Bedford Park to help athletes from Special Olympics Illinois receive their physical certifications to compete in the state. 

In the most recent edition, hosted on Nov. 30, students from the Departments of Speech and Hearing Science and Recreation, Sport and Tourism took time out of their fall break from classes to help the event run smoothly.  

A small team of student audiologists-in-training conducted hearing examinations for nearly 100 athletes, while 15 RST students helped from the event management side, signing in the athletes and directing them to the right locations. 

“You can tell that they got so comfortable and were having a blast, talking with athletes and interacting with them,” said Melissa Garritano, senior director of Special Olympics Illinois region D, which covers the Chicagoland area. “Thinking back to when I was at the U. of I., I wish I would’ve done stuff like this. They drove up two hours to spend the day with us—the athletes loved them.”

The connection stemmed from Bedford Park’s budding partnership with the College of AHS. The Department of Recreation, Sport and Tourism has a grant with the Village of Bedford Park, which heavily invested in the Wintrust Sports Complex. The project-heavy facility hosts community events on a regular basis, atop of its normal sports operations. 

Joe Ronovsky, chief business officer of Village of Bedford Park, is a two-time RST graduate. He saw that the complex could serve as a real-world “lab setting” for community engagement projects led by RST faculty and students. 

“Frankly, it's kind of a one-stop shop, and it's an opportunity for me as a teacher to show how all these things interact with each other,” said RST Clinical Associate Professor Michael Raycraft. 

MedFest was set up to provide free medical screenings for Special Olympics athletes. Wintrust Sports Complex at Bedford Park began partnering with Special Olympics Illinois about a year and a half ago. 

“Their facility is unbelievable,” Garritano said. She met Raycraft through their common connections to the Wintrust Complex. 

Nicole Dudek, a junior in the RST program, was taken aback by the organizational strength and scale of the event. She started her day at MedFest positioned at the height and weight station, an entry point for many of the athletes. 

When students showed up around 8:30 a.m., the Special Olympics staff had the gear and answers: nametags, T-shirts, and where each student would be working within the complex. 

“From the event management side of things, you could tell how well-run this event was start to finish,” Dudek said. “It helped to have such a large open space and so many volunteers, and everyone worked well together with the sole goal to help these students get their necessary medical certifications.” 

The “noisy, upbeat” energy of the event bolstered the volunteer experience for RST senior Carson Bounds. 

“As you could imagine, with 450 kids taking a field trip to a large indoor sport facility during a school day, they all were quite excited to be there,” Bounds said. 

Third-year audiology student Yadira Espinoza appreciated the pre-event workshop on how to work with a special needs population. 

Group shot of AHS students and faculty standing together. “Since it was a Special Olympics event, it was important for us to know what to expect; that every kid will be different depending on their needs and accommodations,” she said.  

The athletes—ranging from elementary schoolers to full-grown adults—had a variety of responses to the hearing tests. Espinoza used her bilingual fluency to help some of the families who only spoke Spanish, she said. 

“These opportunities are very important because they provide more or confirm what we learn in the classroom. It’s different to work with someone who may have Down syndrome or a speech delay; seeing it firsthand really makes a difference and puts you in a situation to put your critical thinking in place,” she said.  

SHS audiology students are regular volunteers in the community, typically getting out for a handful of outreach events per semester, such as a recent visit to the ClarkLindsey retirement community in Urbana.  

Clinical associate professor Sadie Braun supervised the audiology students in the volunteer event. Seeing her students persist with the athletes who didn’t respond right away to testing made the experience worthwhile. 

“The athlete got this sense of pride when they were doing what we were asking them to do,” Braun said.  

“It was awesome and unique to bring the U of I [audiology] crew up,” Garritano added. “Some of those athletes they got to see may have never had a hearing test in their life.”

Ronovsky thanked Raycraft and Village of Bedford Park President David Brady for tying together all the stakeholders in November’s event. 

“Seeing the large group of RST and Speech and Hearing Science students volunteering at MedFest really tied together the meaning of community we’re trying to build at the Wintrust Sports Complex, in Bedford Park and throughout the state of Illinois,” Ronovsky said. “These Illini students are the next leaders in our communities.”

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