Sarah Burke, board member of Special Children’s Charities, Special Olympics Chicago, continues her mother’s legacy by bringing attention to a cause close to her family’s heart.
As a young girl, Sarah Burke tried to imitate everything her mother did. “I used to copy the way she answered the phone to fool whoever was on the line,” she recalls, laughing. “I’ve maintained that inflection in my voice, and I think I dress like her. I’m often wearing an old piece that belonged to her.” Her mother, of course, is Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke. Both have the same wavy blonde hair and the same unrelenting drive to make a difference.
Back in 1968, when Anne Burke, then 24, was working for the Chicago Park District, she thought up and established Special Olympics Chicago. For the young woman who just married Edward Burke (who became an alderman the following year), it was an eye-opening experience. It was an era with a completely different mindset; a time when children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities were hidden from the public. “The common perception was that children with Down syndrome weren’t going to live very long and they couldn’t do anything,” says Justice Burke. “Families put children with special needs in facilities or nursing homes to care for them, or they kept them home. They weren’t bringing them out the way we see today. We’ve done the Special Olympics [which spread across the globe thanks to Eunice Kennedy Shriver] and people now know better.”
Eventually, Justice Burke went to law school, earned a degree and the rest is history. Today, Sarah steps into her role with Special Olympics Chicago at age 37 with an established, high-powered career in law. She graduated from DePaul University College of Law, passed the bar exam in 2002 and worked for a judge and law firm before becoming a prosecutor for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. And according to her husband, Ross Crampton, it’s Sarah’s passion for service that fuels her desire to help people through her job and involvement with the Special Olympics. “Sarah’s beautiful and smart but, most importantly, she loves people and that’s infectious,” he says. “She’s an open book; what you see is what you get – she’s exactly as good a person as she seems.”
Sarah juggles motherhood (daughters Holly, 4; Abigail, 1) and a full-time career as the director of external affairs at Northwestern Memorial HealthCare with her duties as a board member of Special Children’s Charities, which supports the Special Olympics. From providing uniforms to ensuring adequate transportation, the board’s goal is to raise funds to support its athletes.
Sarah credits the other board members and volunteers for keeping the Special Olympics at the forefront, but for her there’s also a sense of coming full circle. “The Special Olympics was never something I needed to learn about – it was sort of woven into my DNA,” she explains. “It’s just part of who we are.”
ALL IN THE FAMILY
With two working parents and four young children, life in the Burke household was always abuzz with activity. The kids poured their own cereal, while their mother prepared lunches. “We hated liver sausage sandwiches, but that’s what my mom had in the house and that’s what we got,” Sarah recalls with amusement. “We never got bags of chips, none of that stuff, but it was a loving and learned house.”
Her father is a well-versed historian “so there were a lot of things we gleaned from hearing him talk and it was fun.” Her mother remembers juggling parenthood with law school: “When I had classes, I’d bring Sarah with me, and she’d fall asleep in one of the chairs.”
For Sarah, having parents with such high-profile careers meant seeing them in the media a lot. But life in the public eye had its cons when the accidental death of her brother Emmett in 2004 made headlines. “You’re unable to mourn privately,” she explains.
Although her children were sheltered from the political spotlight, Justice Burke says, “They weren’t sheltered from service.” Indeed, it was this deeply ingrained sense of service that made Sarah realize she wanted to help people by going to law school.
In some ways, the Special Olympics is just the tip of the complex and multifaceted iceberg. Despite the success of the organization, there’s no time to rest on their laurels. Through fundraising, Sarah says there are hopes of building a central location where athletes can practice, get check-ups and have access to regular physical therapy. “There are serious athletes at the Special Olympics, such as weightlifters,” she explains.
And then there’s the deeper issue that the organization is looking to address: what happens to these athletes when their main caregivers or parents are deceased? “We’re looking at the child and their long-term care,” explains Justice Burke. “That’s why we’re in the process of looking for a permanent home, because everybody deserves a home. And everybody should have the freedom and comfort of knowing that there’s going to be a home for them and a place where they can go.”
Last summer, as the Special Olympics celebrated its 45th year in Grant Park, Sarah recalls watching her mother dancing with the athletes. “[When she started the Special Olympics] she wasn’t the Supreme Court Justice that we know today; she was just a young Chicago Park District employee who had a passion and desire to help others and their families,” she says. “I’ve had the good fortune of having wonderful, caring parents and it makes me think of that quote: ‘To those whom much is given, much is expected.’ And that’s the legacy of being a Burke: how do you pay it forward?”
John Reilly Photograph