Sheri Duke and her husband James got involved with Special Olympics in 2000, and though she had no idea what to expect in terms of the people or the games, she never imagined it would become such an integral and rewarding part of her life.


Often people don’t get involved with Special Olympics unless they have a special needs family member. Sheri, of Bloomfield, Nebraska, married James Duke in Yankton in 1992 and settled down with his three young sons. The youngest, Kyle, then three, was born with right-sided cerebral palsy and has mobility issues with his right arm and right leg. Up until he was about 11, he played regular sports with his brothers, “He played soccer, and he played T-ball and he played all those [sorts] with the other two boys. But as he started getting older,” explains Sheri, “and the other two boys started getting a little older, it just seemed to me, like it was more dangerous for him, because everybody was getting more advanced and Kyle was a very small child for a long time. I kept saying he’s going to get hurt because other kids his age were twice his size. I was concerned — but he loved doing sports.”

School coaches echoed her concerns about Kyle’s safety. “He’s a good ball player within the confines that he’s playing,” she continued, and Special Olympics presented an opportunity, “So why not let [him] excel in that avenue if [he] can?”

On initially joining Special Olympics, Sheri remembers, “We got him involved in it, and my husband has never been one who could just sit on the sideline and watch as a parent. He always had to get involved and coach. So he started coaching when Kyle joined and I just kind of got involved in a chaperone role, helping out as needed and going along, and just making sure people got to where they belonged at the time they belonged, or whatever was needed. So we all just got involved in that manner.”

Over time, the positive experience of Special Olympics became much more rewarding than she had anticipated. “I think I get even more out of Special Olympics than the athletes get out of it!” Sheri said laughing, “Walking into a room and getting a smile and a hug. And you could be having the worst day and someone walks up to you and gives you a hug, just because they’re glad you’re there. You know, that’s what it’s all about. You’re doing something for individuals who truly love the fact that you’re there no matter who you are, no matter what you do, no matter what your background is, no matter where you come from, they love you.”

Also, she emphasizes, for parents wondering about letting their kids participate in Special Olympics, “I think the world is such a judgmental place and it’s so sad that it is. I think when we’re in Special Olympics there’s no judgement. Everybody’s just glad you’re there.” For the benefit of the athletes, she adds, all volunteers are vetted.

When Kyle’s older brother Christopher got to high school, Yankton Special Olympics started fielding a unified team, one in which volunteers, often of the same age group as the athletes, partner with them teaching, mentoring, befriending and helping during play. Christopher became a unified partner. “It kind of has always been a family thing,” she smiled, “and then of course when we got the girls, it naturally evolved into them being drug into it too….They have been exposed to it from the first day they ever arrived. … It’s just a normal way of life.”

The girls are Sheri and James’ three daughters, adopted from foster care three years ago. The Dukes began fostering in 2009 after the boys graduated from high school. It was at that time that Sheri wished for children of her own, but as she explains, “Due to circumstances beyond my control, I wasn’t going to have any. … So that is why we started fostering. I never intended to adopt three children. I was thinking one. But, they came to us in 2012 — Brianna and Alissa, the younger two — they came to live with us as foster children. It was a couple of months later that we were asked to take on the older one.”

At the time, Brianna and Alissa were two and three years old. The older sister Natasha, was already six, and had been in another foster care situation by herself for some time. Sheri feared Natasha might miss that one-on-one attention once she was around her sisters again. She and James were also concerned that three girls might be too many in an already chaotic household. Even so, they would not turn their backs.

“And I can’t imagine life without her now.” Says Sheri, “She fits in very well. She’s really grown and really done some amazing things.”

After four years of fostering, the time came to make a decision: whether or not to adopt, but really the decision had already been made. “I said to James well we can’t just not keep them now! My parents are their grandparents! We’re their mom and dad!”

In 2014, Sheri went from volunteering, to co-leading the Special Olympics delegation with Barb Clayton, and though it was never her intention to head the delegation, a year later that’s exactly what she was doing. “Thankfully we have great volunteers, so anytime I throw something out there saying, ‘Hey I need help with this!’ they’re really good about it.”

Now, along with Kyle, Alissa and Natasha qualify for Special Olympics, “Two of my girls played softball for the first time last summer. They both qualified for Special Olympics as well, so we now have three of them in it currently. The third one doesn’t qualify she is too young and she is not on an IEP.”

Some parents have difficulty with the idea of putting their child on an IEP, but Sheri saw her girls struggling in ways that she knew warranted attention, even if others didn’t notice. She believes that when necessary assistance during youth gives kids the skills they needed when they are older. “I don’t look for the here and now with any of my kids. … I’m looking at, what are they going to do when I’m not here? What is going to happen to these kids … when they’re out of school? So I look at all of these things that they are able to get involved in as stepping stones to helping them in their adult life.”

Kyle graduated high school a long time ago, but he still participates in Special Olympics, and was selected to play softball at the national Special Olympics competition next year — but he also goes to work every day. “I am so proud. Kyle has a job and goes to work five days a week and has held that job for many years. He’s been the employee of the month several times. He’s been the employee of the year for the disabilities group.

Kyles’ father, James Duke, will also be going to the nationals — as a coach—along with athlete Jacob Anderson, and two other Yankton Special Olympics coaches chosen as alternates.

Though she is not sure how long she will want to continue in her role as delegation head, for now, Sheri is enjoying what she does. “There’s times I tell James, ‘I think I don’t know if I have the energy for this anymore, if I have the time for it anymore, but I don’t want it to not continue, and I think we have a passion for it. Every year we get done with one sport and it’s like, ‘Whew! We need a break!’ It’s fast and furious and tiring, but by the time the next one comes around we’re ready for it, and we just want to start again.”