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Community unites for Forsyth Special Olympics Spring Games
Maddie Maslanka finishes first in the 100-meter dash Friday during the annual Special Olympics Spring Games at Forsyth Central High School. - photo by Micah Green

CUMMING — The Olympic Games came to the Forsyth Central High School football field Friday, and the morning held a special place in the hearts of everyone involved.

The annual Special Olympics Spring Games promotes athletic opportunities for special needs students in Forsyth County Schools and brings awareness to the group of about 350 athletes who compete.

“It gives them the opportunity to see what’s out there with Special Olympics and to see what they can participate in after school,” said Susan Darlington, coordinator of the event.

Special Olympics of Forsyth runs teams and leagues, including tennis and softball, throughout the year. While Friday’s event can help raise awareness, it’s also a day for the kids to have fun.

“There’s a soccer kick, Nerf ball throws, a long jump, a 50-meter dash and an obstacle course for our athletes in wheelchairs,” Darlington said.

The day kicked off like any other Olympic event would: an opening ceremony and a parade of participants. They marched according to their school, arm-in-arm with other student “buddies.”

“For every athlete we have one or two buddies just to help guide them around the field,” Darlington said. “They’re from the middle schools or high schools and buddied with elementary- all the way to high school-aged.

“I love seeing the camaraderie between high school student-athletes and the buddies.”

Alexis Harber, a 10th-grader at Forsyth Central, was a buddy for the first time, though many students have been helping for years.

“I didn’t get the opportunity to last year, but I had already known her, and I just wanted to help out,” Harber said.

She was a buddy to Julian Martin, a ninth-grader at Central. In between events they walked and talked together.

“I’m helping Julian play games and encouraging her,” said Harber, standing next to her friend. “We just did long jump, and now we’re waiting to do Nerf balls. And then I think we’re running some.”

The field wasn’t just full of athletes and buddies.

About 150 volunteers from various businesses around the community led individual events and helped to keep the day running smoothly.

Volunteers have been attending the games for about eight years, including more than 70 on Friday from Lexis Nexis.

And in asking anyone on the field, the theme of the day was to be there for the kids.

“The love they bring is amazing,” said Tanna Savage of the athletes.

Jami Perissi’s daughter, Bella, is a seventh-grader at Otwell Middle. She participates in the school’s peer buddy program, a new class this year that takes the friendship and interactions from the field to the classroom, bridging any gaps that may exist between special needs children and the rest of the student population.

“Her older sister has autism,” Perissi said. “[Special Olympics] has a special place in her heart.”

Perissi said she has been involved in the Games for a long time, as her 36-year-old niece has Down syndrome.

“I’ve never seen them have as much participation from the community and other students as [in Forsyth],” she said. “They get really close.”