It’s not every day that the Orange County High School football field plays host to a Board of Education relay race, a parade of schools, visits from local team mascots or a group of student athletes ranging in age from kindergartners to seniors in high school.
But this is what the Orange County Schools’ Exceptional Children (EC) Spring Games are all about — breaking normal routines for students with and without disabilities and allowing them to get outside together.
“These games are a chance for all students to interact and see that they all are the same — they all love games, they’re all kids,” Orange County High School EC Department Director Paula Alford said.
She started the games in 2017 after she was unable to coordinate with Special Olympics. Now in their third year, the spring games are a chance for fresh air, friendly competition and simply having fun.
This year, the event kicked off with the Orange High marching band leading a parade. Students marched with handmade banners representing their individual schools and kids ran a silver tasseled torch around a portion of the field, “passing the torch” to signify the start of the competition.
The introductory festivities finished up with a team of local mascots racing OC Board of Education members in a high-spirited relay.
The games continued through all morning until noon, with groups of kids in coordinating school tee-shirts, jumped miniature hurdles, played cornhole, blew gigantic bubbles and shot basketballs into bite-sized hoops.
Most athletes had a “buddy,” with older kids from district schools, parents, teachers and volunteers holding young athletes’ hands and often taking part in the games themselves.
“The idea of being out here today is for the kids to get out of their self-contained classrooms and socialize,” Joan Abernathy, who volunteers with autistic students at Grady Brown Elementary School, said. “Today, these students don’t have to feel different.”
The games also provided opportunities for students to have their faces painted, enjoy hot dogs, popcorn and sno-cones prepared by Orange County Sheriff’s Office deputies and connect with student volunteers.
Danika Poteat is an intern with Orange High School in an Exceptional Children classroom. She attended the games this year to connect with students, both from her classroom and from other schools.
“I love working with these kids,” she said. “And it’s so good to be out here today with so many EC kids because they’re outside of school, just getting to run around.”
Alford said that the event does not have any main financial sponsors, but that teachers and local businesses gather each year to bring the games to fruition.
This year, Weaver Street Market donated some of the refreshments, teachers publicized the event, resource professionals set up booths with representatives from organizations such as the N.C. Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stormy and the Durham Bulls’ Wool E. Bull team mascots traveled to Orange County to participate.
“This is the first time we’ve had resources like this,” Alford said. “We want to build it even more next year and grow our combination of fun activities and resources for the kids.”