- Associated Press - Friday, April 15, 2016

DANVILLE, Ill. (AP) - It was the beginning of the 2003 baseball season, and organizers of the Tom Jones Challenger League in Champaign were looking for some worthy opponents.

That’s when Lori Lyons, a member of the Danville AMBUCS and director of the club’s annual youth summer camp, organized 14 children with disabilities from Vermilion County into two teams - the A’s and the Bucs. Four of the players, whose parents couldn’t attend, even stayed over at Lyons’ house the night before the first game day.

“It was just one of the most amazing things I’d ever been part of,” Lyons, an adaptive physical education teacher, recalled of watching her summer camp kids and the other players hitting balls of different sizes, “running” bases and tagging out their opponents - just like their able-bodied peers.

The best part, she recalled: Seeing the joy on the faces of the players and their family members and friends.

“I knew Danville needed to be a part of that,” continued Lyons, who pitched the idea of starting a Little League-sanctioned challenger baseball league in her backyard and has chaired the AMBUCS Challenger Baseball League during the 12 years of its existence.

AMBUCS is a service organization that’s dedicated to creating opportunities for independence for people with disabilities. Each year, the Danville club gives its First Citizen award to a resident who has contributed significantly to the community.

This year, Lyons, of Tilton, was selected from 14 nominees as the 83rd recipient, said Natalya Bourn, the selection committee chairwoman. Lyons will be honored at a banquet at Turtle Run Banquet Center.

“Lori is the perfect First Citizen,” said Diane Carlton, the club’s Amtrykes Committee chairwoman. “She’s generous with her time, she’s patient with the children, and they just love and respect her. She doesn’t see their disabilities. She sees and works with their abilities.”

Among other reasons, Lyons was chosen for:

- Her 27 years as an adaptive P.E. teacher with the Vermilion Association for Special Education cooperative. In addition to holding classes at the school on Catlin-Tilton Road, Lyons travels to schools throughout the county to work with students on muscle strength and endurance, cardiovascular endurance and individual skills that will help them with whatever they’re doing in their regular P.E. class.

“She isn’t just a teacher to them,” said Lisa Martin, an AMBUCS past president and one of several people who nominated Lyons. She’s “a mentor and a friend.”

- Being the backbone of the AMBUCS-sponsored Challenger Baseball League, established in 2004. The program - which won the Governor’s Hometown Award in 2006 - now has 100 players on eight teams. Teams play four Saturdays in June at Winter Park.

“She’s not just the chairperson who sends out the invitations, orders the shirts and brings all of the equipment to the field. She’s also the pitcher,” Carlton said. “She pitches until they can hit it … for all three games, and she works with them on different skills.”

And, Lyons sorts through hundreds of pictures taken by volunteers throughout the season and selects a picture of each player to be featured in that season’s yearbook. The yearbooks are presented to players at the last game.

- Directing the club’s annual Summer Camp for Children with Disabilities. Lyons started as a camp counselor in 1986 and has directed the program - which hosts 40 to 45 students the first week, and another 50 to 55 the next - for the last 20 years.

Activities might include bowling, boating, swimming, playing putt-putt golf, cooking and crafts. The highlight is a sleepover at the Boys and Girls Club of Danville on the final night.

Rickey Williams Jr., the former youth club director, met Lyons 10 years ago when she and camp co-director Paula Wolfe toured the clubhouse prior to when it hosted the sleepover for the first time.

“Although I was impressed by her preparation, I was even more moved by the love and compassion she showed her students,” the Danville Ward 1 alderman wrote in his nomination letter. “Despite the fact that she was constantly in demand, I cannot tell you how many times I witnessed her stop just to take the time to talk to, hug and reassure the campers. I also cannot count the number of times students told her that they loved her. It was clear that her presence and support made children who are often ostracized and made fun of feel like they were the kings and queens of the world.”

- Her service on the Amtrykes Committee. After recipients are selected, Lyons is one of the professionals who determines what size and type of the specially-adapted cycle they need.

She has also helped bring more than 50 cycles to schools throughout Vermilion County, including VASE.

In addition, Lyons volunteers at adult and children’s Christmas parties. She also served as a foster mother for 15 years and adopted three children - Gabe, 18; Jacob, 16; and Preslee, 2.

Her two sons volunteer their time working with children with disabilities.

A 1984 Catlin High School graduate, Lyons earned an associate degree from Danville Area Community College and a bachelor’s degree from Anderson University. While she initially planned to teach able-bodied students, she developed a passion for working with special-needs students while teaching summer school at the old McKinley School in Danville when she was still in college.

Lyons was named the Illinois Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance’s Adaptive Physical Educator of the Year in 2004 and 2009 and received the association’s Quarter Century award in 2014. She has also received several AMBUCS awards - Project Manager of the Year, 2003-04; President’s Award, 2006-07 and AMBUC of the Year, 2008-09.

Still, she said, being named First Citizen was quite a shock.

“I’ve seen the recipients, and I don’t put myself into that category,” she said with a laugh. They include community philanthropists, CEOs of this and executive directors of that.

Lyons said it’s humbling and nice to be recognized for following her passion.

“I’m a doer … and I really believe in what AMBUCS stands for. I work with these kids on a daily basis, and I see the opportunity these extra curricular activities provide. It gives them the same opportunities that able-bodied students have.”

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Source: The (Champaign) News-Gazette, https://bit.ly/1YjHteo

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Information from: The News-Gazette, https://www.news-gazette.com

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