PEMBROKE — D.J. Hester, a special needs student at Tanglewood Elementary School, stood up from his wheelchair on Friday to walk across the Lumbee Guaranty Bank Field at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s Grace P. Johnson Stadum..
For Wendy Chavis, seeing Hester leave his chair was the biggest highlight of the Robeson County Special Olympics.
“Everybody was cheering him on,” said Chavis, director of the county Parks and Recreation Department. “He walked a good ways, too.”
Chavis’ department spearheaded this year’s games, which drew more than 350 special needs students from 40 of the 42 public schools in Robeson County.
The event is an extension of the North Carolina Special Olympics, a nonprofit founded in 1968 with the goal of encouraging children and adults with disabilities to challenge themselves, develop physical fitness and — most of all — have fun while building self-esteem.
The local games were previously overseen by the Public Schools of Robeson County. Chavis says that Special Olympics North Carolina approached her office last year about taking over the event.
Uniforms, equipment and training for all local Special Olympics activities are funded by the state organization.
In addition to having a new group at the helm, another difference at this year’s event was the venue. The past few Special Olympics were held at Brooks Stadium at Lumberton High School.
“The university is a great venue,” Chavis said. “Everything out here is handicap-accessible. They did an outstanding job making sure the athletes have everything they need out here.”
Sandy Jacobs, the associate director of Service-Learning at the college’s office for Community and Civic Engagement, was responsible for signing up volunteers. He recruited more than 300 students to help out with the event.
“It wasn’t that hard,” he said. “It’s something that a community naturally gravitates to. People just come together for an event like this; it’s great for the community and the campus.”
Jacobs said the payoff was seeing “the smiles of the athletes” as they took part in running, walking, long-jumping and throwing events.
“It was enlightening and refreshing,” he said.
The games opened with a torch-lighting ceremony at 9 a.m. Participants were divided into three age categories: 8 to 11 years old, 12 to 15 years old, and 16 years and older.
Anthony Govan, program specialist with the county Parks and Recreation Department, says the event was a success.
“It took some long days, but I think we did an outstanding job,” he said.
Govan and other members of the department have experience with programs geared toward young people who suffer from physical and mental disabilities. In addition to an annual pageant, the office sponsors baseball and bowling programs for special needs children.
The Parks and Recreation Department plans to sponsor special needs variations of all its sports in the future.
Sgt. 1st Class Dareen Deese, a native of Pembroke, corralled a dozen troops from the National Guard to help out with the games.
“I saw a lot of smiles on the kids’ faces,” he said. “The soldiers really enjoy helping out children in the community. We’re going to try to make this an annual tradition.”
Pvt. Theodore Johnson said the sense of joy displayed by the athletes was infectious.
“Helping out made me feel like a little kid again. It was an amazing event,” he said. “It’s an excellent opportunity to bring everybody together in the community.”
The Robeson County Special Olympics is one of 100 sub-accredited programs based in North Carolina. The state Special Olympics organization is headquartered in Morrisville. For information, visit sonc.net.