Hundreds of students — both special needs and their general education peers — from each elementary, middle and high school were met with cheers from the crowd as they took to the field early Wednesday morning to march behind their school’s banner around the track.
About 500 athletes ran relay races, jumped over hurdles and participated in the softball throw, among several other events throughout the day. A highlight each year for many of the athletes is heading to the Olympic Village, where participants can get their faces painted and play games.
Superintendent Dr. Frank Petruzielo helped kick off the ceremonies with Special Olympian Hunter Estep, an Etowah student who read the Special Olympics Oath.
Petruzielo, whose wife was previously a special education teacher, said he was extremely impressed with the “culture of service” in Cherokee County schools.
“What has been accomplished with this event in the last four years is very amazing,” he said, referencing the recent growth of the event as he looked out into the cheering fans in the bleachers. “These kids just love competing.”
Petruzielo said the program complements students’ academic performance, as CCSD special education students have historically scored anywhere from 15 to 30 points higher on standardized tests compared with Georgia special needs students on the whole. Last year, 88 percent of special needs students passed the state high school writing test, compared to the state’s rate of 72 percent.
Just before the races began, the Special Olympians sang “The Power of The Dream” by Celine Dion led by Dean Rusk Middle School teacher Mary Mills, who is retiring this year after teaching 22 years.
Dave Martinez, co-coordinator of the event, pumped up the crowd as the athletes took their places on the track.
“Who’s ready to go far? Who’s ready to run fast? Who out there is a champion? Everyone’s a champion!” he shouted through the microphone to applause from the crowd.
Martinez, who works as the school district’s certified adaptive physical education specialist along with colleague Amy Aenbacher, said many of the athletes are recruited to participate during their P.E. classes.
“Because the relationship between Cherokee Special Olympics and the school district has grown so strong, it’s been really easy to grow the program,” he said. “We have places to practice, needed facilities and bus transportation through that partnership.”
Martinez said the success of the event can be attributed to district leaders, including Petruzielo, as well as River Ridge Principal Darrell Herring and counselor Jeff Bennett, who advises the school’s Crusading Knights program.
Several students in Crusading Knights, a service club that pairs regular education students with their special education counterparts, stood at the finish line on the track to hand out participant ribbons.
Cherokee Rabjohn, a junior in the club, said she became interested in a career with working with special needs students after she was diagnosed with a brain tumor and was in the hospital for weeks. She said the experience drove her to want to help others.
“I really like to see the kids enjoy what they’re doing,” Rabjohn said. “They’re just always happy and want to talk to you.”
One of Rabjohn’s special needs classmates, Austin Reed, is one of her good friends.
“He’s at every sports event,” she said. “He was named Fan of the Week during football season.”
Reed said he loves coming out to all athletic events, but his favorite is football.
“It’s just fun,” he said of his football superfandom.
Though the event hosted by CCSD is once a year, local Special Olympics events continue year-round, Martinez said.
“We’re getting geared up for the Georgia Special Olympics Summer Games at Emory (University),” he said. “We’ll be sending about 100 athletes to compete in swimming, volleyball, tennis and track and field.”