Lisa Kaya-Noble and Kurt Noble in the garden. Credit: Wendi Kromash

Together, the duo of Lisa Kaya-Noble and Kurt Noble host a podcast called Amazing Individuals and are active volunteers with the Special Olympics programs in Evanston and Special Olympics Illinois.

They got involved with the Special Olympics through the Special Recreation community within Evanston’s Health and Human Services Department.

“Every time something goes wrong, I always think there is someone out there that is worse off than me,” says Lisa Noble, 48.

During an interview, she and Kurt, 60, answer each question thoughtfully and with candor, seeking to dispel the myths that surround people with intellectual disabilities.

Their motto, and their signoff after every podcast, is, “People with intellectual disabilities can accomplish whatever they want with the right supports.”

The RoundTable interview session took place in their neat-as-a-pin condominium, near where they host their podcast – unless they are on location as part of their work with the Special Olympics.

The RoundTable met them at the celebratory dinner hosted by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department prior to the June city council meeting that honored the Special Olympics athletes, in particular the ones who competed in the USA Games 2022 recently held in Orlando, Fla.

Lisa talked about her podcast and the speeches she gives as part of her work with the Special Olympics, mentioning that she and her husband had traveled to Orlando to interview athletes, coaches and volunteers.

The RoundTable sought to learn more. It was time to turn the spotlight on them rather than the other way around.

Strong partnership

Lisa and Kurt consider themselves married, although, technically, the celebration of their union was a commitment ceremony and not a marriage.

Lisa Kaya-Noble and Kurt Noble in the garden. Credit: Wendi Kromash

They’ve chosen not to get legally married, hoping to preserve the financial benefits they would lose if they did. The U.S. government limits the amount of money they are allowed to earn and the amount of money they are allowed to keep in a savings account. They rely on the disability benefits they qualify for individually.

Their love for one another, however, and their strong partnership is evident after a few minutes of being in their company. They gently encourage one another in conversation and listen without interrupting. They are quick to say they have no secrets between them and say they’re “blunt honest” with one another. 

They met about 14 years ago working at the Glenview Naval Air Base. One day, they started talking over lunch, and Kurt remarked that Lisa looked familiar, but couldn’t quite place her. They realized they had both worked at Century 12 movie theaters as ticket-takers, but at opposite sides of the building.

They initially didn’t expect to fall in love. It caught them by surprise. They were enjoying hanging out with one another, playing sports, going to Starbucks for coffee or taking the train to Chicago to visit a museum or to go to Navy Pier.

So how did Lisa know Kurt was “the one”?

As Lisa tells the story, she was dealing with some health issues at the time. Experiencing chest pain, she called her doctor who told her it was probably heartburn and to take some over-the-counter antacids. But later that afternoon, Lisa still wasn’t feeling well, and Kurt insisted they go to the emergency room.

Lisa was admitted and treated for three blood clots in her lungs. Had Kurt not insisted they go to the hospital, it is likely she would not have made it through the night. 

“Except for one night when he had to work, he stayed with me every night I was in the hospital. He made sure I had everything,” said Lisa. “He saved my life.”

Kurt added, “I came back every day until you were released.”

“He met me at my worst when I wasn’t feeling good,” Lisa said. “That’s kind of a testament. But again, that shows you just because we have disabilities doesn’t mean we’re not sympathetic to people. Or that we can’t help each other out. He didn’t leave me at my lowest point and it was like he was there to be with me. And he’d always been there and helped me out with things. I think that’s kind of when I knew.”

When it came time to propose to Lisa, Kurt made arrangements to do it at one of their favorite places: Starbucks. The employees all clapped and treated Lisa to a free coffee and pastry.

Educators and proponents                      

The two are happy to explain their intellectual disabilities and how it affects them.

Kurt has a traumatic brain injury as a result of an accident when he was 4 years old. He ran into the street chasing a ball and was hit by a car driven by a teenager.

He was airlifted to the hospital and does not remember much about the incident, but he was told that the young man had just received his driver’s license that day.

Kurt spent about a month in the Intensive Care Unit and had to relearn how to do everything including walking and talking. His feet were badly damaged and required surgery. Fifty-five years later, Kurt still suffers from short-term memory issues and gets frustrated when he can’t understand something easily or can’t recall something.

When these rough patches happen, he takes a short time out, does deep breathing exercises or squeezes stress balls.

As a child, Lisa was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, which she said she was told bordered on Asperger’s syndrome. She also has a lot of physical issues stemming from chronic arthritis.

She already has had both knees replaced and had six screws inserted into her neck due to degenerative disk disease. Some medications she has been prescribed have affected her appetite, and she struggles with her weight.

She says it can take time for her ailments to be properly diagnosed because, in her experience, physicians are often dismissive of her complaints.

No matter what obstacles they face, though, the two don’t quit.  

“One of the things I hate the most is when people say, ‘Oh, you don’t look disabled,’” Lisa said. “I think to myself, what does being disabled look like? You know, we always say that people are unique. People say to me, ‘Well, everybody has challenges.’ You can’t just look at somebody and say ‘Oh, yeah, you have a challenge. You have challenges with this.’ I think, no, that’s not the case. It’s one of the reasons why I got into leadership in the first place: to advocate for people like ourselves.”

Special Olympics Illinois

Since his graduation from high school, Kurt has worked in the hospitality industry for large companies like Hilton. Currently, he works part-time for Lou Malnati’s pizzeria on Sherman Avenue, organizing and restocking the shelves every Monday, Tuesday and Friday after the week’s supplies are delivered.

Lisa has worked as well but is taking a break because of health issues. She earns some money as Kurt’s “personal support worker,” tracking his earnings to make sure he doesn’t go over the governmental limits on what he can earn. She also earns some money from her work with the Special Olympics.

Kurt describes himself as the kind of guy who has to be busy. When he’s not participating in a sport, he loves to volunteer with Special Olympics Illinois.

”I’ve been doing it for 43 years,” he said. “What I’m doing now is giving back. And it is fun, too, because I get to meet the parents and the kids.”

He also volunteers for the Evanston Police Department, a position he’s held for at least 30 years.

“Kurt has helped with several projects at the police service desk and we appreciate his attention to detail, even going and bringing in his own items to organize and assist with one of the projects,” said Sue Pontarelli, his supervisor at the police department. “He is a great asset to us.”

Karen Milligan, director of athletic leadership and family initiatives with Special Olympics Illinois, has worked with Lisa for at least 10-12 years; Kurt was recruited into the athlete leadership program a few years after she was.

The program “provides opportunities for athletes to develop their personal and professional skills, their leadership skills, employment readiness and career development-type skills,” according to Milligan.

“They’ll attend events, speak at different meetings and signature fundraising events, attend and polar plunges and you know, civic engagement-type things where they’re able to share their story and talk about how the Special Olympics has impacted their lives,” Milligan said of the duo.

“I’ve really seen just tremendous growth with both of them over the years,” she said. “We’ve offered them different leadership roles because of their interest in wanting to do more, to be better speakers and leaders, and just their intent to always be willing to learn and be better at what they do.”

‘A rising star’

Milligan said Lisa recently became Great Lakes regional representative for athlete leadership, “which is a big responsibility. She serves on a national committee around that role and that’s why she will also be attending the global Congress in Berlin next year. She’s just a rising star.”

Milligan said Lisa “developed some tremendous skills. I’m looking forward to working with her on the project that she is building out and that we’ll bring to Berlin to share with her counterparts from all over the world.”

Lisa is one of only four U.S. Special Olympian leaders to be invited to Berlin.

Her project “is designed to try and create some positions within Special Olympics like internships where athletes can help, and one of the focus areas will be on donor engagement and stewardship. It’s an area we need to work on as an organization and who better to be thanking our volunteers and sending letters of appreciation for their support than our athletes,” Milligan said.

She’ll introduce some of her initial ideas at a leadership academy in Chicago later this year.

Kurt and Lisa plan to attend the Berlin conference and fit in some podcast interviews as time allows. Some family members plan to join them in Berlin so they can travel together after the conference.

Kurt has been to Europe before – he and his late mother went to Paris after he graduated from high school – but Lisa has never been abroad. They are looking forward to experiencing this new adventure together.

Wendi Kromash is curious about everything and will write about anything. She tends to focus on one-on-one interviews with community leaders, recaps and reviews of cultural events, feature stories about...