Roughly 300 volunteers, 149 athletes and hundreds more braved chilly wind Wednesday morning for the annual five-county Special Olympics at Northeastern High School.
“Welcome to the Winter Olympics,” quipped Frank Heath, assistant superintendent of Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools. “Today is actually one degree colder than it was at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.”
The athletes represented Camden, Chowan, Gates, Pasquotank and Perquimans counties.
Jo Ann Herron, a special needs teacher at River Road Middle School, said of the past 30 years she’s been involved with the local Special Olympics, only one event took place on a colder day than Wednesday. Temperatures creeped from the upper 30s to the low 40s.
This year marks Herron’s 15th year as event organizer.
“For every athlete, there are one to two volunteers specific to that athlete,” she said, adding that the Coast Guard, CenturyLink and Knights of Columbus provided 100 more volunteers.
Herron said when she was growing up, she regularly played with a neighbor with intellectual disabilities. She attributed that interaction to starting her on her career path.
A second-year volunteer similarly linked her involvement to “personal” reasons.
“My sister has disabilities,” said Ashley Townes, 17, a Pasquotank High senior. “She’s deaf and she has cerebral palsy.”
Athletes were obviously excited about the Games.
Derrick Cross, a 14-year-old athlete sporting a bright green Edenton-Chowan Special Olympics shirt, said this was his first year participating.
A seventh-grader at Chowan Middle School, he enthusiastically said that he would run the 25-yard dash and compete in the wheelchair race.
Marionn Holley, a Hertford Grammar School third-grader, said he enjoys the running events and the softball throw.
“I love throwing the ball,” the 9-year-old said.
Mariah Fuller, a senior at Pasquotank High, said she has been an event volunteer for two years through Project Unify, a school club geared toward interaction with those with intellectual disabilities.
“I’ve been with Marionn both years,” she said, adding that helping with the event “puts a smile on my face.”
“It’s really fun being able to help them and encourage them,” agreed another volunteer, 18-year-old Tia Walker, a senior at Northeastern High.
Julie Gregory said her son Jarrett Gregory, an eighth-grader at River Road Middle, was participating in the wheelchair race, tennis ball throw and walker race.
“He likes being out with friends,” she said, noting that the 16-year-old does not really care about winning.
“He likes hearing people calling his name (and) cheering for him,” she said. “I think he just likes to be included.”
Jarrett, who has cerebral palsy and is developmentally disabled, usually has a big crowd cheering him on, his mom said.
Besides herself and his grandmother, Jarrett has four siblings who often bring significant others to the event, she said.
“After he finishes all of his events, we go to 3 Amigos to celebrate,” she added.
Jen and Josh Scialdone were in the stands, cheering on their two sons, who both have autism: Joshua, 10 and in fourth grade, and Jonah, 12, in sixth grade — both at Camden Intermediate School.
“We took (their) big brother out of school to support his brothers,” Jen Scialdone said.
This is the second year her younger boys have participated in Special Olympics.
“The first time we came as fans in the stands,” she said. “I signed them up when I saw how much fun the athletes were having.”