Her feet a blur as she raced down the Greenbrier High School track, 8-year-old Karlissia Elam took a first-place ribbon Friday in the 100-meter dash.
"I feel good," the youngster from North Harlem Elementary School said about her 19-second performance.
Helping children feel good about themselves is exactly what Friday's Columbia County Special Olympics was all about, said Greenbrier High senior Kara Knight, Karlissia's volunteer buddy for the past school year.
"This one day is dedicated to them where they can feel special," Knight said.
Dozens of special needs students, representing most Columbia County schools, participated Friday in events ranging from traditional track and field events such as the 50 and 100-meter dash, and the long jump, to specialized events such as soccer dribbling, putting for points and the softball throw for distance.
The day began with the athletes entering the stadium representing their respective schools as the Greenbrier High marching band played. The start featured athletes taking a lap around the track with the Olympic torch, complete with the lighting of a cauldron.
"(The Special Olympics has) always been a big deal to the athletes involved and the parents because it gives them the opportunity to showcase their skills and compete at such a level that it is actual competition," Greenbrier Middle School Principal Jackie Creasy said.
Sgt. 1st Class Sylvia Selito, whose sons Matthew, 10, and Michael, 6, participated in Friday's games representing Brookwood and Blue Ridge Elementary schools respectively, said her sons had never had the opportunity to participate in sports.
"It's great that (my sons) can compete in sports," she said. Her family moved to Martinez from her last duty station in Texas, where her sons attended schools that did not participate in Special Olympics.
"I had always wanted to get them involved in something like that and when we moved here it was great that they had such a big program to get everybody involved," Selito said.
Creasy, who is a former special education teacher and a long-time Special Olympics volunteer, said the competition enriches the children's lives and it's touching to see student and adult volunteers give of themselves to make the day possible.
About 140 student volunteers, including Knight, along with dozens of adult state game chaperones and coaches, helped coach the athletes, ran scores to the press box, ferried refreshments to the field and helped coordinate the events, said Debbie Seymour, a family and consumer sciences teacher at the high school and a coordinator of the games.
"(The high schoolers) come down here, they work with these kids and they see how difficult it is for them (the special needs kids), how hard they have to work to overcome all these obstacles, and it really puts things into perspective for these kids," Seymour said.
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