GREENFIELD — E.J. Nevarez watched in wonder as his 7-year-old son, Dereck, kicked a soccer ball around the Greenfield-Central High School football field Monday morning, when kindergarteners through eighth-graders gathered under sunny blue skies to participate in the Special Olympics.
It was an emotional site for the military man, whose family recently relocated to Greenfield after Nevarez was re-stationed to Lawrence through the U.S. Army.
It was the first time the father of four had watched his son Derek really participate in any type of sport, since the boy’s autism and developmental delays can make some physical tasks challenging.
Making kids of all abilities feel capable and included is what the Special Olympics are all about, said Rachel Ross-Kroemer, Greenfield-Central’s assistant director of special education.
Thirty students with disabilities spread out across the high school field on Monday, taking part in a variety of activities. The younger set of kindergartners through third-graders ran an obstacle course and did other fun events while the older kids in grades four through eight competed in a softball throw and long distance jump contest. The games concluded with a relay race.
Each student athlete was paired with two students, known in the Special Olympics as Unified Partners, to help guide and support them throughout the day.
One such partner — 12-year-old Malcolm Riddle, a sixth-grader at Greenfield Intermediate School — said it feels good to help other kids experience sports that able-bodied kids like himself might take for granted.
“It feels really good to be able to help them,” said Riddle, who takes part in soccer, football and cross country.
Katie Sanchez, a mother of six, expressed her gratitude to the kids and adults who made Monday’s Special Olympics event possible.
“There’s not a lot of opportunities for special needs kids to participate in these types of things, so this is really great,” she said as she cheered on her son, 7-year-old Bentley Sanchez, from the bleachers.
“It’s great to see what he’s able to do and to see so many people who support him. I think it’s a great opportunity for all these kids. It makes them feel accepted,” she said.
This was the second year for the Special Olympics program at Greenfield-Central, which hosted its first games in 2019 but took a two-year break due to COVID.
The excitement started early on Monday, as Patrolman Danny Williams with the Greenfield Police department drove to each of the seven participating schools to provide students with a police escort, creating a caravan as he drove from school to school.
When the students arrived at the high school football field, cheerleaders from Greenfield-Central Junior High School were there to greet them with a pompom tunnel, which the student athletes went through after descending from the buses.
The high school band played some warm-up music, along with the Star Spangled Banner at the start of the games.
Greenfield-Central’s superintendent, Dr. Harold Olin, read the Special Olympics athlete oath as the students repeated the words after him: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
Proud parents filmed the festivities on their phones and held cardboard signs aloft from the bleachers.
Williams, accompanied by three torchbearers chosen by Greenfield-Central teachers and administrators, carried a makeshift, fire-free torch on the field to officially start the games.
Fourteen students with disabilities from the high school’s Functional Academics class volunteered at the event, helping lead track and field events and selling concessions to raise money for future Special Olympics events.
The games followed a model set forth by the Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools program, which promotes social inclusion for students with disabilities through whole school engagement and inclusive sports and youth leadership opportunities.
Ross-Kroemer beamed as she watched the games unfold and spoke of how thankful she felt to have such great weather and a great day for the kids.
“The Special Olympics really brings together a culture of inclusivity and acceptance of all kids, no matter their ability level,” she said.
Jodi Haywood, who teaches deaf and hard-of-hearing students throughout the school system, was having a great time helping supervise the games.
“I love the way the games help kids find their strengths and hone in on them,” she said.
Whether it’s something as simple as kicking a ball into a goal or competing in a longjump, “some of them are doing some of these things for the very first time. They’re finding something they’re good at. I’ve seen some trepidation in their faces, but a lot of pure joy,” said Haywood.
Jayden Harvey, 16, a special needs student at the high school, beamed as she cheered and directed the student athletes on the field.
“I just like to watch them play and have fun,” she said.
As the teachers and parents cheered on the kids scattered across the field, Nevarez couldn’t take his eyes off his son Dereck, a second-grader at Harris Elementary School.
“It’s great to see him out there so involved with the other kids,” said Nevarez, who attended the games with his wife, Carmen.
“We’ve never experienced something like this anywhere else that we’ve lived. This is absolutely beyond anything we could have expected. It’s been great,” he said.