VALPARAISO — Lorrie Woycik is always greeting people with a smile and sometimes one of her patented hugs.
Her joyful demeanor can be felt by those she talks to in Valparaiso.
But there are some people in the Region who always feel Woycik's love — her kids. Thousands of them over the years have known her and been encouraged by her.
Woycik, or Ms. Lorrie as her students and athletes call her, has been involved in special education in Porter County since the very beginning. This year marks Woycik's 50th anniversary with the Special Olympics as well as 50 years since the beginning of Special Olympics Indiana.
Woycik calls her work with special needs children and adults "a calling from God."
Woycik moved from New York to attend Valparaiso University. Her father was a Lutheran minister, and as a child, she would go with him on his rounds with special needs children and she would play with them the same as anyone else.
A dedication to her faith and a desire for an education far from home led her to Valparaiso. Woycik graduated in 1952 with a degree in physical education. Woycik worked in a Chesterton elementary school with 43 students, two of which had special needs.
In 1953, she married her husband, Barney, who was her "biggest fan." He died in 2013. Woycik said he always let her be herself.
After they got married and had three children, Woycik stopped teaching first grade and stayed at home to take care of the children. Then in 1957 she got a call that changed her path.
How it all began
"When I got the phone call, it was the furthest thing from my mind," Woycik said. "And if I hadn't said yes, I wouldn't have had such a blessed life."
The call was about what would become the Vale Day school, a place for special needs children to study and prepare for supervised employment, one of the first places for special education of those with disabilities.
Woycik had three hours to take the position before a meeting that night. She accepted and from there, the Vale Day school started with five children. After two years, there were 42 children enrolled.
Before, special needs students were sent off to private and boarding schools because special needs children "weren't considered teachable," Woycik said. "That's so, so wrong."
"At first it was guesswork because there were no books, no suggestions or anything for the lower-functioning children," Woycik said. "Once I got started ... I felt, 'Oh wow, this is so cool.'"
The school was funded by people in the community, but had to move several times before settling on its spot at Valparaiso University. The land was leased to it for $1 per year.
"It was just a dream come true," Woycik said.
When the children came to the school for the first time, a 6-year-old named Beth was so excited to be at a school, just like her older brother, Bobby, Woycik said.
"She went, 'Teacher, this is my desk! This is my chair! Just like Bobby's!'" Woycik remembered.
In the late 1960s, the Vale Day school was in the process of being closed and students transferred to local public schools. At the same time in the summer of 1968, the first International Special Olympics Summer Games were held at Soldier Field in Chicago.
"I thought that sounded so cool," Woycik said. "That our kids would be able to compete and have fun and do sports."
Special Olympics was officially incorporated August 1968 and just a year later, Indiana joined in. Area I includes Elkhart, Jasper, Lake, LaPorte, Porter, Marshall, Newton, Starke and St. Joseph counties.
In 1972, Woycik became the area coordinator for nine sports leagues and more than 250 athletes. She was a coordinator and coach for more than 18 years. She was an international coach in 1979, 1981, 1985 and 1987.
"Physical activity is almost as important as mental activity," Woycik said. "Physical helps mental, and mental helps physical."
Woycik still coaches swimming and basketball. She broke her pelvis recently but still gets to the YMCA each time for practice. When asked what she does now with the athletes, Woycik had a simple answer: "Love them."
Feeling the love
Bob Havrilla, of Porter County Special Olympics, has a 25-year-old son who has been involved in the group since he was 8.
"(The athletes) love her," he said. "She's done so much for so many."
The athletes don't always smile at her, Havrilla said. Woycik is a coach and mentor and she's tough on them. But they still smile and go up for a hug. Special Olympics is all volunteering, nothing is paid.
"That's just the type of person she is," Havrilla said of Woycik.
Woycik has worked with thousands of athletes and students over the years and many of the people she has influenced and affected in Valparaiso came together to celebrate her May 5.
It was all started and organized by Lisa Talley, a Valparaiso University graduate student who was following an assignment. She wanted to find an important, untold piece of the university's history to share.
Talley thought it would be just a 15-minute interview, but now considers Woycik to be a "kindred spirit."
"I know I'm a different person because of Lorrie," Talley said.
Talley's paper became 25 pages on Woycik's life and a documentary. She said that if all the interviews and "everything of value" was included, it would have been three hours long.
One of her friends involved in the project suggested they could have a viewing, which turned into a thank-you celebration for Woycik. So many people were willing to help for Woycik's benefit, Talley said.
"Lorrie wanted them to have an experience just like every other child does," Talley said. "Lorrie really has done just about everything."
Both Talley and Woycik weren't expecting the crowd they got at the event. Talley estimated more than 300 people showed up to celebrate Woycik. People spoke about her impact on their lives, and 30 Special Olympics athletes stood up to give Woycik a flower or a medal.
They told her, "You are my gold medal."
"I (have) had the best life ever," Woycik said.