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Special games, special rewards

About 350 student volunteers, called Best Buddies, help Special Olympians compete at Gaither High.

By LOGAN D. MABE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 23, 2003


NORTHDALE -- David Perez was just having fun. Wearing a hat fashioned from a pink balloon, dancing in the end zone of the Gaither High School football field and helping middle schooler Rachel Guavarez toss a tennis ball, Perez was all "buddy."

"She's dancing, she's got her balloon hat and her face painted," said Perez, a Gaither junior and one of about 350 "Best Buddies" helping out at the school's annual Special Olympics on Friday. "It's just good to help other people. I think it's good to give your time to other people."

The yearly Special Olympics pairs mentally and physically challenged students with high school student volunteers. Each buddy spends most of the school day helping the disabled athletes compete in a variety of track and field events, while partaking of the party atmosphere.

[Times photo: Mike Pease]
John Mulenhoff, 21, scrambles to keep the lead in one heat of the 50-yard dash during the Special Olympics.

In all, about 700 students, including participants and volunteers, from 14 schools attended the half-day event, said Jeff Satin, a Gaither agricultural teacher and organizer. That was counting the beefy guys manning the burger and hot dog grill, the dozens of Civinettes and cheerleaders who worked the various booths, and the track team kids who helped run the athletic events.

"I can't wait to get my face painted with my buddy," said Gaither senior Christina Garcia. "My buddy is Megan Fernandez, and I've been in the Best Buddies program here at Gaither, so I've been working with her all year."

Best Buddies is a subsidiary of the international Special Olympics movement and pairs up regular students with their disabled peers in school. They get together for movies or bowling and look out for each other in the busy hallways and classrooms of large schools.

"It's a real opportunity for our kids in regular ed to work with our kids in special ed," said Gaither principal Ken Adum. "This is really a practice for their big Special Olympics at USF. Plus, we try to make it a fun day."

A DJ pumping out high-decibel dance music and the smokey sweet smell of grilled goodies added to the festive mood.

"I know my kids talk about it for months to come," said Cheryl Sether, who teaches trainable mentally handicapped students at Wharton High. "Since December, they've been asking, 'When are we going to Gaither?' And you know what makes this special? This guy (Adum) is out here the whole time making everybody feel welcome, shaking every kid's hand. He's one in a million."

Sether said the Special Olympics has a definite and profound impact on her students. "It's self-esteem," she said. "You can see that they're proud of what they've done. And they all think they've won."

Every competitor is awarded a ribbon and gets a souvenir photograph on the winner's stand.

"Everybody gets a ribbon, everybody gets their picture taken and everybody gets food and fun," said Teresa Trumbach, a government and humanities teacher at Gaither. "Everybody is a winner."

-- Logan D. Mabe can be reached at 269-5304 or at mabe@sptimes.com

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