The Third Annual Opportunity Knocks Chili Cook-off took place at Healy’s Westside on Sunday, only hours before the Bears’ heartbreaking defeat. Eighteen chili chefs presented their creations, accompanied by generous helpings of sour cream, oyster crackers, grated cheese, jalapeños, green onions, lime and cilantro.

Participants, many wearing orange and blue jerseys, paid $50 for all-you-can eat chili and beer at the fundraiser.

“I look for spicy. I like the heat,” said chili judge and Forest Park Mayor Tony Calderone, sampling each concoction from a paper cup and cleansing his palate with bottled water.

“I don’t like it if it’s too sweet,” said Village Administrator Tim Gillian. His favorite chili is on the thicker side and he was looking for the distinct tastes of different ingredients.

The non-profit organization Opportunity Knocks began five years ago with the goal of offering social opportunities to adults with developmental disabilities. Executive Director Michael Carmody is a special education teacher at Oak Park and River Forest High School. “When they’re 22, the public school system cuts them off,” he said. Opportunity is currently giving 22 adults, age 15-30, a chance to socialize and recreate three days a week at the River Forest Community Center.

For the Carmody family, the issue hits close to home. Twenty-three-year-old John – one of five brothers – has Down syndrome. “[Disabled adults] lose out on a lot of social activities,” said John’s brother, Michael. What’s more, both residential and job programs in the region are hard to get into. “There’s a waiting list for everything. I don’t want my brother to leave this area. I want him to stay here.”

All five Carmody brothers – Charles, Phil, Michael, Colin and John – participate
in Opportunity Knocks in some capacity.

Opportunity wants to give its adults support and allow them to “prove what they’re really capable of,” Michael said. Over the long term, the organization wants to develop job-training programs and residential opportunities as well.

“The goal is to be a mini-Misericordia in this area,” Michael said. (Misericordia is a North Side Chicago non-profit that offers a wide range of opportunities for persons with developmental disabilities.)

Opportunity Knocks officially took off in 2009, when it received upwards of $45,000 in proceeds from its KG Classic Co-ed Softball Tournament fundraiser in Forest Park.

Michael started the KG Classic in honor of Kathleen Garrigan, a U.S. AmeriCorps volunteer from Oak Park who died in a Memorial Day weekend boating accident on
Harding Lake near Fairbanks, Alaska in 2007.

Funds from the tournament, as well as private and foundation donations – including another $11,000 from the annual Lemon Aid fundraiser in River Forest last fall – helped pay for an 800-square-foot renovation to the River Forest Community Center. While there, participants take part in recreation and fitness activities, attend self-advocacy classes and engage in various hobbies.

At the chili table, anxious chefs watched the judges working their way down the line. Commissioner Mark Hosty, another judge, said he always favors chili-powder flavor. He said he likes the traditional ground beef or steak approach but is open to “fun, different interpretations.”

A new twist was presented by 14-year-old chef Caleigh Havansek, of Skokie, who brought her recipe for Mexican chicken chili with “lots and lots of cilantro.”

In three rounds, the judges awarded first place to the team of Cara Beth Greene and T.J. Hefner. Secret ingredients included ground veal, filet mignon and ghost peppers. Second- and third-place awards were given to Joe Milburn and Bill Leark, respectively.

Opportunity Knocks raffled off an iPad and Blackhawks tickets, and Competitive Foot also donated merchandise. In total, Opportunity raised nearly $11,000 on Sunday, according to board President Phil Carmody.

Next for Opportunity Knocks is the April Gala fundraiser, a semi-formal dinner dance and auction. As Opportunity builds on its success, it carries with it a mission of “Opening doors, creating opportunities and changing lives” for the adults it serves.

“They’re all heroes,” Michael Carmody said. “[People with developmental disabilities] have taught me so much about life, what I want to be and do – it’s astounding. I wouldn’t be who I am without them.”

Nick Moroni and Ken Trainor contributed to this article.

Jean Lotus

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...