Students, school staff, and families packed the bleachers at Raider Stadium Friday in Mt. Airy to cheer on the athletes during the Special Olympic Games. (Daniel Purcell/Now Habersham)
Habersham County’s 46th annual Special Olympics is being hailed as one of the best ever.
Hundreds of special ed students from eight Habersham County schools took to John Larry Black Field Friday morning to open the games and compete in 14 different events, including the 100 meter dash, relay races, cycling, a wheel chair race, shot put, and softball throw.
Let the Games begin
The games opened Friday morning with the Parade of Athletes, who marched around the track as Habersham Central’s Band of Blue played the Olympic theme song.
After the Pledge of Allegiance by student athlete and Habersham Central High student Benjamin Gallagher, the National Anthem was sung by special ed student Jeremiah King also from Habersham Central.
This year, the Olympic Torch was brought into the stadium by Special Olympians Matthew Chitwood, Rosie Fernandez, and Sara Kirschner.
Two Torches were used, the officially sanctioned Special Olympics Torch and the torch that Dr. Martha Cantrell, the Habersham Schools Gifted Coordinator, ran during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
Each year the graphic on the t-shirts for Special Olympics is designed by special ed students.
Justin Cannon, a Habersham Central student, was presented with a framed graphic of his design by Jill Maxwell, Director of Special Education in Habersham County.
Second and third place art design winners, Lucky Tiamtisack, a student at South Habersham and Douglas Defoor also of South Habersham each received gift certificates from Papa John’s Pizza for their artwork.
A chance to shine
Maxwell said the games are important to Habersham’s special needs students.
“It gives our special needs students the opportunity to compete in sports, and to be with other students who have disabilities just like they do. It also gives them a day where they can just have fun and enjoy the day as others cheer them on.”
And she said it gives the parents a fun day out as well.
“Absolutely. It gives them a chance to get together with other parents and collaborate with others and to see their children participate in sports that they don’t normally get to do,” she said. “There’s certain events like Bocce that is not even a sport that we would do in school, but it’s an opportunity for their child to participate in a sport that they might see on the Special Olympics on TV.”
All of the events are considered athletic competitions sanctioned by the U.S. Special Olympics.
“This is their way of being able to compete with their peers,” explained Jenny McNally, the local coordinator for Habersham Special Olympics. “They’re not able to participate in school sports so it’s very important that they have an outlet to showcase their talents and abilities as well.”
Cheering on the athletes
“He loves it. He looks forward to it every year,” noted the parent of a 10-year old who competed in the 100 meter and 200 meter races as well softball throwing. “He’s been training and looking forward to this all year. It gives him a sense of belonging and he likes being with other students who understand what he’s going through.”
Barbara Woods came to cheer on her grandson, Gavin Moore, 18, who is a senior at Habersham Central.
She was part of a special group who came to the games Friday. They are the school bus drivers for the Special Needs students of Habersham County.
“I’ve been a school bus driver for the special needs students for 31 years,” Woods said. “When I started I asked to be assigned to the special needs students because I just love them. Gavin is very excited about being at the games today. He will be participating in one of the ball events. He loves to play ball.”
Volunteer support grows
Friday’s games got some extra help from volunteers who came from all walks of life and organizations, such as Woodmen of the World, the Gainesville YMCA, and the Key Clubs of Habersham Central and Tallulah Falls School to name just a very few.
Many of those volunteers were also Habersham Central High students, including cadets from the Habersham Central High Junior ROTC.
“It’s a good opportunity for us to do service for our community,” noted Major Etoria Hearon, U.S. Airforce Junior ROTC and Senior Aerospace Science Instructor. “It also helps them develop leadership skills and organizational skills as well as have a lot of fun.”
Maxwell said the volunteer turnout and support this year was better than expected with more volunteers than in the past.
“It grows every year,” she said. “I couldn’t give you an exact number but I can tell you that we bag over 400 lunches to feed our athletes, parents, volunteers EMS, coaches and staff. We are beyond blessed by the support of the community we live in.”
The 2018 Special Olympics USA Games will take place July 1-6 in Seattle, WA with some 3,500 athletes from across the U.S. participating.
Founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the Special Olympics movement has grown to nearly 5 million athletes in 170 countries, and includes 32 Olympic-type sports and nearly 100,000 games and competitions throughout the year.