This Saturday, the 6th Annual OK Classic will fill The Park with fun, food and festivities. Opportunity Knocks President Phil Carmody observed that, over the years, the marathon softball tournament has been “expanding exponentially.”

Opportunity Knocks was founded by Carmody’s brother, Michael, a teacher in Oak Park and River Forest High School’s Special Education Department. The Carmody family had a personal stake in starting the organization. Their now-25-year-old brother, John, who has Down Syndrome, was being cut off from public education programs. The state of Illinois does not provide services for individuals with disabilities older than 22. OK offers these activities to their “warriors” well into adulthood.

The softball tournament began life as the KG Classic in 2007. Again, Michael Carmody was the instigator. It was a one-day, 20-team softball tournament played on the fourth Saturday of September. Its purpose was to remember and honor Kathy Garrigan, an Oak Parker who had perished in a boating accident. The tournament continues her legacy by raising money for causes close to Kathy’s heart.

That first year, $3,000 was raised for OK and the Kathy Garrigan Scholarship Fund. The total amount quadrupled in 2008. In succeeding years, the amount raised has steadily grown – $25,000, $45,000 and, last year, $65,000. The proceeds are used to defray OK’s $350,000 operating budget and fund the scholarship. But the focus of the OK Classic is more on fun than fundraising.

The softball games start at 7:30 a.m., with the championship game fought under the lights at 9 p.m. “It’s a long, long day,” Phil Carmody said. “A team has to win five games to win the championship.”

The co-ed teams played 14-inch softball in the past but this year there’s an option. “Some have a preference for 16-inch softball,” he said, “so if both teams agree to it, they can play 16-inch during the first two rounds.” The only concession is that female ballplayers get to wear mitts.

Another innovation is that each team recruits an OK Warrior from a pool of kids who want to play. Carmody sees players establishing comradeship with the warrior on their team. In addition to the 400 players, 150 volunteers make sure the tournament runs smoothly. Carmody expects a crowd of 1,000-1,200 to fill The Park. They are drawn by the many attractions aside from the softball.

Softballers will have several ways to gain an edge on the opposing team.

“We have the ‘Big House,’ where you can jail an opponent for a nominal fee,” Carmody said. “They can do their time or pay bail to get out. There’s also ‘Dress ‘Em Up.’ It’s a rack full of costumes. You pay to make an opponent wear a banana suit or a Spiderman costume.”

On the more serious side, there will be a brief ceremony at 11:30 a.m. to honor Kathy Garrigan and OK, thank the fundraisers, and give out awards and prizes. “The top fundraising team will get 40 White Sox tickets,” Carmody said. “The top individual fundraiser gets four tickets to the Bears.” The softball team that captures the championship trophy, which bears the smiling face of Kathy Garrigan, wins a 20-ticket package to a White Sox game.

“We try to keep the tournament as loose and fun as possible,” Carmody said, “but it gets competitive in the end.”

The OK Classic is a completely different animal from the organization’s other major event, the annual gala, but both raise substantial sums. The money is used to pay 15 staff members and rent space at the River Forest Community Center. The workers are supplemented by a number of volunteers. There’s a high staffing ratio for the 30 participants. They enroll in 4- to 5-week sessions, offering social and recreational activities three days a week. Many of these classes take place at the rec center.

“We also venture out to other venues,” Carmody said. “We’re having a scavenger hunt on Madison Street, bocce ball, badminton, and Craftivist Week on Lake Street.”

Holding the OK Classic at the Park was a no-brainer for Carmody.

“There’s no better place to play softball. It’s head-and-shoulders above other facilities. We have a great partnership with The Park. They go out of their way to support us. It’s also convenient to the people and businesses that support us. It’s the heart of our community.”

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.