ELIZABETHTOWN — The only thing brighter than the sun Thursday were the smiles at Elizabethtown Middle School, the site of the 2017 Bladen County Special Olympics where about 130 athletes competed for prizes and pride.
“We couldn’t have ordered a better day if we had tried,” said Ass’t. Superintendent Tanya Head.
The day began with the Parade of Athletes, which, similar to the World Olympics, witnessed teams round the track led by a banner they had created. Teams were comprised of any school, day program, or group home that wanted to participate. Athletes walked the 200 meters of the track waving and smiling to the cheers of bystanders. After the Pledge of Allegiance and the playing of the national anthem, Nicholas Alito, accompanied by representatives from the Elizabethtown Police Department and Bladen County Sheriff’s Office, carried and subsequently lit the torch to begin the games.
While Bladen County Schools student Arami Charvis was giving out hugs and telling people, “I’m happy. You happy?” Grayson White was also sharing his sunshine with everyone he saw, running up to and embracing almost everyone.
“Having Special Olympics means a lot to me,” said his mother, Melissa White. “I don’t know what it means to him, and I can’t know, but he has a blast.”
Having fun was the order of the day. From the time athletes were announced amidst cheers to the time the games ended, bystanders cheered and applauded every effort.
“Some of these guys may never make it on the softball field or on the football team,” said Bladen County Schools Exceptional Children Director Cheryl White-Smith. “We want to celebrate everybody, and Special Olympics is their opportunity to show off what they can do and for us to celebrate that.”
At least one bystander turned out for that very reason. Mandy Padrick and her three sons come to the Special Olympics every year, always with the same purpose.
“Every time my boys play in a game, they have six or eight people show up to support them,” Padrick commented . “I talk to them every year about the fact that Special Olympics is the only day some of these people have, and not everyone has someone to come out and support them. We just want to make sure everybody here knows they’re special and has somebody behind them cheering them on.”
Not just the spectators turned out the support the athletes. According to Bladen County Special Olympics Committee co-chair Shayla Yancey, the event included about the same number of volunteers as athletes — around 130. Nathan Kroesche was one of those volunteers.
“I have family members who are like this,” he said, gesturing to the athletes. “I know what the struggles are, and just want to help.”
Kroesche and four other West Bladen students took charge of the track races and the handing out of the medals, and high-fived and fist-bumped athletes when they finished.
Games were divided into two divisions — track and field. Track events included the 10- and 25-meter wheelchair races, 10-meter assisted walk, 25- and 100-meter walks, and 50- and 100-meter runs. In the field, athletes competed in a softball throw, tennis ball throw, standing long jump, and bocce. A Developmental Games area offered horseshoes thrown from any distance, bowling, tic-tac-toe toss, and one game where anyone who picked up a rubber duck out of a bucket won a prize.
“This is so much fun,” said West Bladen EC teacher Brooke McMichael, who had brought a group from her school. “I wish everybody knew how great this is for these guys.”
“I wish I could stay out here all day,” agreed Bladen County Schools Superintendent Robert Taylor.
After the games, athletes and volunteers were treated to soda, water, hot dogs, and pork loins, courtesy of Smithfield Foods Farm Division. The organization also provided 20 volunteers and 30 boxes of paper products, and had enough food for 550 people. Snow cones were provided by Bull Shaw and Taylor Manufacturing, and Jay Raynor “took off and ran with” Olympic Town, a place for all the athletes who didn’t participate in the games.
“All of our sponsors have been phenomenal to work with,” said EC administrative assistant Tessa Williams.
“It was a good day,” said Yancey, smiling.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.