CUMMING — Smiles, cheers and high-fives were abundant Friday at Forsyth Central High School.
Nearly 400 special needs students from 28 of the county’s 34 elementary, middle and high schools filled the football stadium for the annual Special Olympics Spring Games.
“This day is extremely important for our students,” said Sarah Taylor, the school system’s director of special education. “It’s a time for them to show off their skills that they’ve worked for all year, and they absolutely enjoy it.”
Just like traditional Olympics, the spring games start with an opening ceremony. All the athletes get to march into the stadium, take their places on the field with their teams and be honored.
“This is a day when these students are able to participate, exercise, compete, and every one of them will be winners,” said Buster Evans, superintendent of the school system, during the opening ceremony.
“This is one of those days that make us proud to be educators in Forsyth County.”
Besides the athletes — who competed in a range of track and field events such as long jump, relay runs and softball throw — the stadium was also filled with another nearly 400 “buddies.”
“The buddies are typical high school peers who have come out here to pair up with a student who has special needs and just sort of help encourage them throughout the day, take them where they need to go throughout the event, and just be that personal cheerleader for them,” Taylor said.
It was West Forsyth senior Haleigh Barnett’s fourth year as a buddy.
“I think it’s a really great time to get to know the [special needs] students on a more personal level and to make friends with them,” she said. “It’s just a really special thing.”
Barnett’s mom, Lesa Barnett, has been a special education instructor in the county for more than two decades. She said the Special Olympics Spring Games have changed tremendously over the years, just as the school system overall has.
“We have multiplied in our special education program just like the county as a whole has multiplied,” she said.
“When I first started, we had 64 athletes and that was Forsyth, Dawson and Lumpkin counties all together. Now each county has their own event and today we have around 400 here. And that’s just Forsyth County.”
She said that growth has been a good thing.
“We now have taught others about diversity and about everybody’s strengths and weaknesses and that we all have a lot to offer,” she said, adding that the special needs students relish the opportunity to take part in the games.
“It’s a day of feeling successful, feeling like they’ve met some of the challenges they have over the years, and it’s just a time to celebrate.”