Participants in the Special Olympics were placed in events according to their age and ability. While there were first-, second- and third-place finishes in the races, everybody was a winner in the Friday competition.
(The Daily Review Photo by Preston Gill)
The special needs student-athletes participating in the competition at Geisler Stadium in Berwick Friday were special, not in their needs, but in their determination to excel and give their best no matter the obstacles and difficulties they faced.
The 37th annual Donna Adams Memorial St. Mary Parish Special Olympics gave the students an opportunity to compete as well as develop social and communication skills, have fun and increase their self-esteem, Steve Harris, coordinator of Related Services for the Special Education department of the school board said.
There were about 120 students from ages 4 to 21 participating, Harris said. Whether they were pushed in a wheelchair, walked or ran over the finish line, each was trying to live up to the Special Olympic Oath which Brandon Cortez gave before the games began.
“Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt,” he said.
Parish Councilman David Hanagriff’s 9-year-old son Jackson attends Berwick Elementary. Both dad and son look forward to the Special Olympics.
“This is all about the kids,” Hanagriff said. “They have so many struggles. ... This is a day they can be normal kids and not worry about their disabilities. They can fit in and just be kids.”
Harris said Special Olympics provides “an opportunity for these kids to be like other children. ... They are learning new things and even overcoming fears. ... It is also good for the community and helps them become more acceptable to people with special needs.”
The event is designed to be a community gathering in a family atmosphere, said Donald Aguillard, superintendent of schools.
“This is an opportunity for parents to come out and see their kids excel and be recognized,” Aguillard said.
There were well over 100 people in the stands, many of them students from Berwick Junior High who came to encourage the participants.
There were also about a dozen St. Mary Parish sheriff’s deputies and Sheriff Mark Hebert at the event. Some of the deputies, in an impromptu gesture of warmth, reached out to become unofficial “huggers” at the finish line.
“All the children of the parish are special but the children participating today are truly special to their parents and friends and to the community,” Hebert said. “This is St. Mary Parish working together and giving something back as a family. This is part of what we do.”
There were volunteer workers and students from the high schools in Patterson, Berwick and Morgan City as well as Hanson Memorial, Harris said.
“It is great to see the community support as well as support from the sheriff, mayors (Louis Ratcliff of Berwick and Rodney Grogan of Patterson were on hand) as well as the support from the school board and its staff,” Harris said.
Janelle Adydan’s 9th-grade daughter Carly attends Berwick High and has participated in Special Olympics for four years, according to her mother.
Carly had just finished running her race as she talked about being a part of Special Olympics. She said she not only runs track but she also participates in bowling competition. She laughed as she made it a point to say that she ran Friday’s race for her brother Chet, whom she promptly went over and embraced.
Adydan said the support in the stands is encouraging to the student athletes. She hopes one day to see more support from the community for the event.
“This is an awesome program,” Adydan said. “I hope it can be expanded to give these kids an opportunity to do things other kids get to do.
Harris said there are seven events which eligible kids can participate in each year in bowling, basketball and track. He said he understands Adydan’s desire for more opportunities for the children.
“We would like to do more, but it is difficult to arrange these types of events outside of school hours and with the increased interest and mandates for classroom instruction time it is hard to do more during the day,” Harris said.
Ashlyn Lewis has been running and competing since she was 6 years old, her father, Kevin Lewis, said.
Ashlyn flew through the race, gliding across the finish line with a smile and obviously on her way to another state meet where she has competed in the past. She said she, like Carly, also competes in bowling and that participation in the competition made her feel “good.”
Lewis praised the efforts of his daughter and the other youngsters participating.
“They are going to give 100 percent every time,” he said. “At the end of each event they are smiling.”
Lewis makes a poignant point when he explained why Special Olympics are important to the children as well as to their parents.
The events give these students who have so much working against them an “opportunity to be with their peers, have a good time, enjoy the competition and nobody ever laughs at their efforts,” he said.
Ratcliff said, “It is wonderful for these kids to participate in this and build their self-confidence. These kids are an important part of our community. ... I am proud to host this competition in Berwick.”
Sgt. 1st Class Bobby Stubbs and the Morgan City High JROTC carried the colors for the opening ceremonies. Stubbs said he and his cadets were glad to be there and always look forward to supporting the community, especially in events such as this one.
After a presentation of the colors, Grogan sang the national anthem. That was followed by athletes running legs of a torch relay until a ceremonial flame was lit in the center of the football field.