It was a day filled with smiles, high-fives and celebration dances.
And there were some tears, too, during the annual Day of Champions at Tumwater Stadium on Thursday. But they were the good kind.
Taresa Spencer said she always cries during the regional track and field event for students with special needs, especially during its opening ceremony, when hundreds of volunteers line up to cheer for the participants.
“Just look at the kids,” said Spencer, a nurse at Jefferson Middle School in Olympia. “They’re so joyful to be here.”
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In its 12th year, the event brought together students in grades kindergarten through 12 from about 40 schools for Olympic-inspired games. The activities were adaptable for students who live with a range of challenges, from blindness and paralysis to autism and behavioral disorders. It was created in 2003 by an educator in North Thurston Public Schools and has expanded into a regional event.
“We have over 600 kids here today,” said Karen Schoessel, Tumwater School District’s former special education director who has helped organize the event for several years. “This is the biggest one ever.”
Students rotated through stations featuring about a dozen different noncompetitive activities, including a long jump, an obstacle course, a big ball roll and a 50-meter dash, among others.
Kim Whiteman, a special education and life skills teacher at Jefferson Middle School, described the event as a day of unity and a chance for students “to get out there and do what’s right for them.”
“It’s all about them today,” she said.
Each of the nine participating school districts paid for their students’ transportation to the event. Everything else was paid for with about $10,000 in private donations, according to Randy Reynolds, president of the Kiwanis Club of Tumwater.
In an effort to make the event more sustainable, the service club took it over from the Tumwater School District, which managed it since 2007, he said.
“The motto of the Kiwanis is serving the children of the world, so what better way than this?” Reynolds added.
Late in the morning, Rachel Bamer cheered as her 6-year-old son Jacoby, a first-grader at Lacey Elementary School, kicked soccer balls into a goal.
“This is totally up his alley …he’s got so much energy,” she said.
Bamer said it was heartwarming to watch the high school volunteers interact and support the participants.
“I think it’s a great thing for them to feel safe and supported, and still let loose and have fun,” she said.