Amid cheers, smiles and music, the games were kicked off with a special opening ceremony — complete with torchbearers, balloons, a band, JROTC flag ceremony and singing of the national anthem.
Alyssa Allen said she always comes to support students at the games, and her daughter Gabrielle, a sophomore with Down syndrome at Etowah High School, has been participating for years.
Teamwork and friendship are highlights of the event — things Allen said are important lessons for the students.
“It doesn’t matter if you come in first or last, there’s still the excitement of participating and making friends,” she said.
The games are not competitive, and every student gets rewards for playing. Temporary tattoos and colorful silicone bracelets were just two of the many rewards for elementary, middle and high school students who participated in the Cherokee County Special Olympics.
Gabrielle, Allen said, is very active in sports. In addition to the Cherokee Special Olympics, she plays TOP soccer and participates in a Cobb Special Olympics gymnastics program.
“She is very active; she does a little bit of everything,” Allen said of her 17-year-old daughter.
Allen said, as a parent, the Special Olympics hold another important significance for her. She said the ability to talk to other people who understand what her family goes through acts as a form of therapy.
“We all walk in the same shoes, no matter what our kid’s disability is,” she said. “There’s definitely a bond there. We’re there for each other, we educate each other. We become close friends.”
The Special Olympics began Thursday at 9:30 a.m., with a parade and special opening events.
Anton Zellman, a motivational speaker and author, acted as the master of ceremonies, keeping the participants and audience engaged as the ceremonies moved forward to much excitement.
Students with special needs from each of Cherokee’s six high schools carried the Special Olympic torch around the River Ridge track as the crowd cheered them on.
“Let’s hear it for our torch bearers,” Zellman said as the crowd clapped and cheered for them. “Wonderful, just wonderful.”
School Board Chair Janet Read and School Board members Patsy Jordan and Rick Steiner, along with Deputy Superintendent Dr. Brian Hightower, went to support the students and volunteers at the event, .
After the opening ceremonies, hundreds of participants went to various stations on the athletic field to play a wide range of games.
From balloon animals and lollipop trees, to cornhole, fun races and T-ball, smiles could be found at every event in the Special Olympics, as cheers and laughter filled the air around River Ridge. The event was expected to continue into the late afternoon, with awards and medals to be presented at the end of the games.