ELKIN — A village gathered yesterday at Elkin High School to host, participate and cheer on the North Carolina Surry County Special Olympics 33rd annual Local Spring Games.
“To present Local Spring Games, ‘it takes a village,’” said Surry County local coordinator Millie Hiatt. “There is a four-page thank you list. I am nothing. Without the committee and the village, it would be nothing.
“It just takes an entire village to put this together,” she said. “Thank you to Elkin High School for allowing us to put our village here.”
The ‘village’ gave a warm welcome to all Special Olympics athletes as they entered the field prior to the opening ceremonies.
Host of Cross Roads Radio on WBFJ David Bumgarner greeted each athlete by name and the Elkin Middle School spirit team formed a tunnel of encouragement and reassurance for the athletes to pass through on the way to their seats.
“I am very grateful to everyone who has played a part in this event,” said Surry County Commissioner Eddie Harris. Cheering on the athletes, he said, “Show a great spirit and enjoy your day.”
President and CEO of Special Olympics N.C. Keith Fishburne congratulated the community for its efforts and accomplishments for Special Olympics.
“(The community involvement) says a lot,” he said. “I’m proud of you for what you’re doing, and I congratulate you for that. The 305 athletes who are going to compete today are really going to be the ones that benefit from this.”
One special athlete of the 305 was welcomed to the stage to receive the Surry County Athlete of the Year award.
“I have had the privilege of working with the recipient of this award for over five years,” said Nicole Jordan, who coaches basketball and athletics and assists with the coordination of Special Olympics in Surry County.
“This athlete participates in athletics, basketball, bowling and softball,” she continued. “He is dedicated to each sport he participates in, shows sportsmanship on and off the court, and is always optimistic about everything in life. This individual is a friend to everyone and has never met a stranger.
“He is very energetic, a team leader, always willing to learn more, and listens patiently. This athlete is a role model to all, and for that reason, I am proud to present the Surry County Athlete of the Year for 2010-2011 to John Edwards.”
Edwards received his award, and the celebration continued with the presentation of the Olympic flag, presentation of colors by Elkin High School’s JROTC, pledge of allegiance, national anthem performed by athlete Veronica Sellars, and Olympic Oath read by athlete Katie Gibson and her Special Olympics buddy, Ellie Hooper.
“Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt,” Gibson and Hooper read.
A devotion by the Rev. Stewart Roten, chaplain for Hugh Chatham Hospital and Mountain Valley Hospice and board member for Elkin City Schools, led up to the arrival of the Olympic Torch. The torch was lit by Kristina Van Eaton, who represented Elkin Middle School and was accompanied by Surry County Sheriff Graham Atkinson and Elkin Police Chief Monroe Wagoner.
Next year, said EHS Principal Mark Byrd, the torch will be lit at North Surry High School. He invited NSHS Principal Bill Goins to the stage.
“Two years ago, we attended Special Olympics at East Surry High School,” Byrd said. He said EHS was challenged to exceed the $5,000 raised by East Surry.
The red crying towel given to EHS as a reminder of the challenge served its purpose. Byrd presented a check for $13,003, the total raised by EHS over the past two years, to Surry County Special Olympics.
Byrd sent Goins on his way with the same challenge and the gift of a cowbell.
“We thought we’d give them something to make some noise and remind them of the challenge,” Byrd said.
Challenge was the word of the day.
Participating in the Project UNIFY race challenge, local high school students faced off against each other and the clock.
North Surry High School placed first with a time of 53.72 seconds, and was followed by Surry Central High School at 1:05 and Mount Airy High School at 1:13.35.
Following the race, Hiatt declared the games open, and the EHS field became a sea of colors.
Wearing T-shirts of assorted colors but unified in mission, committee members in light blue, volunteers in purple, buddies in Elkin blue, athletes in Elkin gold, young athletes in orange, JROTC in light yellow, coaches in gray and the spirit team in white all flooded the field to set the games in motion.
“’It takes a village,’ and we have lots of followers in our village,” said Hiatt of the coaches, teachers, caregivers, sponsors and others lending a hand during the Special Olympics.
Special Olympics athletes had their hand in many competitions, including 10-meter wheelchair race, 25-meter walk, 25-meter assisted walk, tennis ball throw, 50-meter walk, 50-meter run, softball throw, standing long jump, 100-meter dash and running long jump.
The young athletes, ages 2 to 7, although unable to participate in these events due to age, participated in many exciting activities, including bowling, parachute fun and mingling with therapy dogs, Clifford (the only Big Red Dog), who was sponsored by the Jonesville Public Library, and the Carolina Ghostbusters.
On their way back to Gastonia from a recent appearance in Virginia, the Ghostbuster team of Cher Lambeth, Chuck Carte and Doc Geressy stopped in Elkin for dinner. A local student on the Special Olympics planning committee saw the team and decided the Carolina Ghostbusters needed to be on hand to add spirit (no pun intended) to the event.
The Ghostbusters, Clifford, therapy dogs, and fun and games brought smiles to not only the faces of the young athletes, but also the faces of older athletes, volunteers and other participants.
The young athletes program began through the student council of a local school, said Sarah Holleman, who is a coach, volunteer and daughter of Hiatt.
Holleman and another North Surry High School student, Joseph Stewart, were recognized by Fishburne for their Project UNIFY efforts. Project UNIFY is part of a U.S. Department of Education initiative focused on traditional students becoming leaders to support and work with Special Olympic athletes in their communities.
In addition, Holleman and Stewart were also instrumental in the launch of a F.A.N. Club (Friends Accepted Now Club) at North Surry. The two students have been selected to attend the Global Youth Activation Summit in Athens, Greece, this summer from June 23-July 5.
Bumgarner said Holleman is “one of the great minds behind Surry County Special Olympics.” Holleman follows in her mother’s footsteps with her participation and involvement with special needs persons.
“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” Bumgarner joked.
Holleman said the Special Olympics games experience is special for the athletes.
“The joy and all the fun they have when they cross the finish line … the whole experience is just amazing for them,” she said.
The athletes leave the games with “a sense of competition, a spirit of winning and accomplishment, and celebrate their ability,” Hiatt said.
“This day celebrates their ability,” she said. “Every day, there is someone telling them what they can’t do. This is our day to tell them what they can do.”