By Joel Hall
Mundy's Mill High student, Gabriel Milan, took a little longer to finish a 50-meter dash with his classmates on Thursday, but rather than breaking for water, his fellow Special Olympics teammates cheered him on until he crossed the finish line.
Milan is among more than 500 special-needs students in the county training for the 2008 Clayton County Special Olympics. On Wednesday, students from public schools throughout the county will compete at Lovejoy Stadium, at 1587 McDonough Road in Hampton.
The event will enable students with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, neurological disorders, and other physical and mental handicaps, a chance to derive the benefits that come from competition.
"They get the same opportunity as regular (education) students," said Clayton County Special Olympics Coordinator Todd Bullock. "They get to compete and they get excited about winning.
"Anytime you see them getting joy from it, it is going to bring joy to you," Bullock continued. "You like to see the kids succeed and I get to see them experience the same things that my kids get to experience."
This year's Special Olympics has been crafted to better suit the needs and preferences of the participants, said Bullock. The primary field events for this year's Special Olympics will be the softball throw and the 50-meter run. A sensory activity center also will be available for students unable to participate in sporting events.
The Special Olympics is one of the largest sporting programs coordinated throughout the year by the Therapeutic Division of Clayton County Parks and Recreation, Bullock added.
The annual event draws high praise from those involved.
Stephanie Hector, a special education teacher at Mundy's Mill High School, has been involved in Special Olympics events in Clayton County for the last five years. She said students in the Special Olympics gain valuable motor skills, as well as a much-needed boost of confidence.
"The pride that the children get from competing ... their whole countenance changes and their self-esteem is boosted," said Hector. "It doesn't help them in their math, but it makes them feel important."
Hector added that Special Olympics competitors become more sociable and better-adjusted to the real world.
"These kids are going to be out in society, so they need to know how to deal with people," said Hector. "It helps their social skills in being able to talk to people, because there are a lot of people around that they might not know."
"Every year, we look forward to the Special Olympics," said Zeina Fiagbeto, an autism professional at M.D. Roberts Middle School. The students "get to mingle with kids from other schools and make friends ... they don't feel like strangers."
The Special Olympics will proceed from 10 a.m., to 2 p.m., on May 7, with an alternate rain date of May 8.