Annual Special Olympics unites competitors, spectators, volunteers

Athletes begin their race as spectators cheer them on.

Fareen Dhuka

Athletes begin their race as spectators cheer them on.

Fareen Dhuka, Staff Writer

Freshman Lauren Aguilar was at Kroger one day when she was approached by an employee who seemed to recognize her. After she expressed her confusion, he reminded her that he was a runner at Special Olympics the previous year when she congratulated him at the finish line.

“I was honored that he recognized me,” Aguilar said. “All I did was give him a high-five, but he still remembered me after months.”

Special Olympics, which took place on April 7 this year, is an annual athletic event for children and adults with disabilities hosted by St. John’s. Science teacher Susan Barthelme introduced St. John’s to the event 16 years ago while she was the Middle School Community Service Director.

The meet serves as an opportunity for the entire St. John’s community to come together and volunteer alongside each other. According to Aguilar, it is a unique experience for both the participants and volunteers. Special Olympics also provides a chance for families and loved ones to watch their athletes compete.

Channelview ISD bus driver Silvia Perez stood in the bleachers cheering on the boy she has driven to and from school every day for the past three years. According to Perez, the athlete always wanted to succeed in whatever he did, and competing at Special Olympics has given him a platform to do so.

“It’s a blessing that I actually get to drive him,” Perez said. “This is like my dream come true.”

Erica Harris, a coach at Tuttle School, says that the promise of Special Olympics keeps kids motivated to stay focused during the school day. This year, the school brought 26 students to participate in running events.

“It gives them a lot of self esteem during the school day,” Harris said. “They get all excited during Special Olympics time because their family and friends come out and watch them.”

Student volunteers like Aguilar are offered a variety of stations to sign up for, including running concessions, timing the races and passing out awards. Parent volunteer Janine Schueppert, who has attended Special Olympics for the past six years, finds that many participants return to Special Olympics.

“It’s great to see some of the same athletes come back every year and get their awards,” Schueppert said. “The St. John’s kids have also been able to take over more every year in terms of organization.”

According to Community Service Director Marci Bahr, Special Olympics is beneficial even to those on the bleachers and in booths.

“It helps put our privileged lives into perspective; not everyone has the same abilities that we have,” Bahr said.

While the event can be hard work for volunteers, Bahr says she stays motivated throughout the day by what she calls the participants’ “Olympian hearts.”

“Why should I let a little thing stop me when they’re not letting this big thing stop them?” Bahr said.