By Joel Hall
Under clear skies on Wednesday morning, more than 500 special-needs athletes from schools all over the county met at Lovejoy Stadium for the Clayton County Special Olympics.
Parents, teachers, and community-service groups greeted the athletes as they circled the track near Lovejoy High School in an Olympic procession. Groups of students carried student-made banners, one representing each school. This year, every student wore a Special Olympics T-shirt, designed by Oscar Lopez, an 11th-grade special-needs student at Mundy's Mill High School.
Prior to the competition, athletes ran one relay around the track, using an unlit torch as a baton. Judges scored the banners of every school, choosing Tara Elementary, Adamson Middle, and Mundy's Mill High as the winners for elementary, middle, and high school, respectively.
Students competed against their peers in the softball throw, and 50-meter dashes on foot, in walkers, and in wheelchairs. Everything was done with the intention of making the event as close to the real Olympics as possible.
Debbie Nadzam, a para-professional driver for several schools, said in addition to promoting fitness, the Special Olympics helps the students "feel like everybody else.
"All the kids get to participate in something fun," said Nadzam. "It lifts their spirits and makes them feel like a part of the community.
"I think it's great that the county gets to do something for this population of kids," Nadzam continued. "They need to be recognized more in the community."
Taurus Gamble, coordinator of the Therapeutic Division of Clayton County Parks and Recreation, said the event this year was well-organized and included the participation of many more parents and community sponsors. He said the Atlanta Braves, the Atlanta Hawks, Chick-fil-A, and the county all sent their official mascots to interact with students and participate in the festivities.
"The weather has been good and everything has fallen into place," said Gamble. "It has worked out really well for the school system as well as Parks and Recreation."
Rachel May, senior regional manager for Special Olympics Georgia, called the Clayton County Special Olympics a "model program" and said they did well organizing such a large group of special-needs athletes.
"They are one of the best programs in the state in my opinion," said May. "Anytime you can start on time and get everyone where they are supposed to be ... I'm very impressed. Every year they try to offer new programs to give their students as many sports as possible."
Several athletes from Clayton County will compete in the Special Olympics State Summer Games, which will take place from May 30 to June 1 at Emory University. More than 1,800 athletes from around the state are expected to participate. For more information, go to www.specialolympicsga.org.?