BETHANY, W.Va. – As Bethany College’s inaugural Special Olympics Field Day neared its end on Sunday, Joey Collette stepped to the podium to receive his medal and proudly declared: “I’m the winner.”
He wasn’t alone in his sense of accomplishment.
Smiles brightened the faces of the more than 100 volunteers – most of them Bethany students – the 10 young special needs athletes, and the family members who brought them to the noncompetitive event.
The Field Day, organized by sophomore psychology major Allison Paxton from Canonsburg, Pa., introduced the youngsters to the fundamentals of soccer, football, volleyball, basketball, golf, track and field, and cross country.
She began planning for the event in April, but it was a labor of love for Paxton, who at age 6 was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism.
The goal, she said, was to provide a fun and inclusive atmosphere and plenty of memories.
“Just standing here, I’m awestruck,” Paxton said as she addressed a large crowd that included Bethany College staff and family members of the athletes among its spectators.
Lacey Miller, of Wellsburg, W.Va., brought her daughter Addy Jane because of the 10-year-old’s love of sports – particularly hockey, baseball, and basketball.
“It’s not every day that there’s an event like this nearby,” Miller said, noting how welcoming everyone was.
By the end of the day, Addy Jane was proudly showing off her medal.
Barbra and Jay Beatty, of Wellsburg, welcomed the opportunity for their 12-year-old son, Sidney, who is on the autism spectrum.
Barbra Beatty said Sidney was on a local baseball team, but he spent most of the time on the bench. The Special Olympics event, she said, would give him more positive sports memories.
“Everybody has been super nice,” she said.
Each participating athlete was paired with at least one Bethany student who served as the athlete’s buddy for the day.
“Personally, I’m just blown away by the number of volunteers,” Jay Beatty said. “These are college students who could be hanging out with their friends, but they’re here.”
Paxton’s mom, Tonya Paxton, took the time to speak with each of the parents of the special needs athletes. She said she wanted to offer a story of hope.
The Field Day, held inside and outside of the Thomas Phillips Johnson Health and Recreation Center, took on a round robin approach, with the athletes spending at least 25 minutes playing each sport.
When asked what her favorite sport was, participant Kami Morris, of Moundsville, W.Va., said, “All of them. I can’t decide.”
Numerous volunteers, including members of the Bethany College sports teams, manned each station.
Among the Bethany sports representatives were Josh Craig, of Lisbon, Ohio (golf); Riley Meyers, of DuBois, Pa. (soccer); Lindsey Llewellyn of Vermilion, Ohio (volleyball); Dom Salinetro, of Landisburg, Pa. (football); Malik Ellis, of Richmond, Va. (men’s basketball); and Kelsie Meintel, of Moundsville, W.Va. (women’s basketball).
Paxton competes on the Bison soccer and track and field teams.
Several members of the Waynesburg (Pa.) University women’s soccer team answered a call for volunteers from within the Presidents’ Athletic Conference.
Aiden Albert, a senior physical education major and captain of the Bethany men’s basketball team from Saxonburg, Pa., designed the stations.
“All in all it was a great experience,” Albert said, noting that Paxton did the hard part. “The easiest part is running around with the kids and having fun.”
After the sports stations, the volunteers and athletes gathered on the middle of the football field and danced to such songs as “Shake It Off,” “Old Town Road,” and “Cupid Shuffle.” They then had a unified relay around the Bison track.
The day ended with a medal ceremony, with each athlete and their buddies stepping to a podium for their participation awards and photo opportunities.
Ziegenfelder Co., of Wheeling, W.Va., donated the medals and provided frozen treats.
Paxton and Bethany College officials plan to make the Field Day an annual event.
In her opening remarks, Bethany President Tamara Nichols Rodenberg expressed pride in Paxton and the Bethany student body for its commitment to the Special Olympics Field Day.
“This is the beginning of what I hope we’ll have a 10-year anniversary of this, a 20-year anniversary of this, and a 50-year anniversary this,” Rodenberg said. “We’ll invite [Paxton] back when she’s retired and say, ‘Look at this.’”
As the event concluded, Paxton said she is grateful for the help and encouragement she received.
“I’m blessed,” she said. “I have a community that supports me and makes this event possible.”
Visit Flickr to see more photos from the event.
ABOUT BETHANY COLLEGE
Founded in 1840, Bethany is the oldest private college in West Virginia. The Bethany experience focuses on academic excellence in the area of the liberal arts and prepares students for a lifetime of work and a life of significance.