Giggles and pride were the order of the day when some 70 energetic youth approached athletic challenges with determination as other athletes and adults cheered them on.
Like children everywhere, these Hendry County students had come together in the spirit of fun on the field of athletic competition. No matter that these young athletes will never play in the big leagues or the NFL. It was all about fun and friendship; more about seeing the spark inside the child and less about the package that spark is in.
May 12 was a Special Olympics field day at LaBelle Civic Park, behind LaBelle Elementary School.
Students were bussed in from Clewiston to participate in this first event of its kind in Hendry County - Hendry County Game Day - May 12.
ESE teacher Crystal Rodriguez at Upthegrove Elementary School has worked with Special Olympics for ten years; taught in Lee County and now in Hendry for 1.5 years. She is the spark that started the Special Olympic chain reaction here.
Herley Pellew, manager Project UNIFY, attended the games. He said Crystal approached him at an event is Sarasota about bringing Special Olympics to Hendry just last summer. Since last August, both LaBelle and Clewiston High schools and Upthegrove Elementary, have signed up to take advantage of what he called this inclusive program to change the culture in schools, opening up new worlds to students with and without disabilities.
Already some 96 ESE students at LHS, CHS and UES are involved in Unified Teams - and their fellow students - in new and exciting ways; ways that blur their differences and let their similarities shine.
In fact, the LHS track and field Unified team is sending four athletes to Special Olympics state competition ESPN Wonderful World of Sports in Orlando.
Herley said the only thing schools need to participate are willing ESE teachers. There is no cost to the schools for anything, making it a very “sustainable program.”
At the high school level, these ESE students can participate in Florida High School Athletics Association-sanctioned sports with their fellow students on Unified Teams or just in recreational sports.
Crystal said they’re hoping to expand the Unified teams to both middle schools next year.
Special Olympics teaches sports fundamentals to young athletes ages 2-7 in the Young Athletes Program (YAP), but they must be at least 8 years old to compete in official Special Olympics events.
Special Olympics offers 24 different sports year round to open up their worlds and keep these kids engaged.
On the field last week, volunteers from both high schools helped put on the various games, enjoying every minute of it. LHS student volunteer Cesar Ramirez worked with kids kicking a soccer ball into a goal net. He took a minute from his “workout” with the young athletes to say he does it because he “likes to help kids who like to do this stuff.”
Crystal envisions this field day as an annual event with support from the LaBelle Rotary, Kiwanis and American Legion as well as the school district. Sodexo, the company that supplies the county’s school cafeterias with food, provided free lunches for the volunteers and Charles Chase of Super Veggies brought the summer favorite - sweet watermelon. Hendry/LaBelle Parks and Rec prepared the park and provided gators for transport at the park. “They did an awesome job,” Crystal said with a smile.
Anyone interested in getting involved with Special Olympics can contact Crystal at firstname.lastname@example.org.