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Athletes Shine in Bellingham’s Special Olympics

Best Buddies officers CJ Farma, Erik Ormberg, Madison Elliott, Brianna Adams, and Rebecca Pippitt hold the banner as athletes start the event off with a parade.

By Jennifer Russo
What do you think of when you hear the words Special Olympics? Many of us were brought up to believe that this is a sporting event for people with varying types of physical and intellectual disabilities. While, in theory, that is correct – perhaps we should challenge ourselves to look at it a little differently. Instead of considering someone’s “disability,” we could simply look at their unique abilities, their capabilities…their possibilities.
This is what the Best Buddies organization does. They have what they call Friendship Programs, which pair people of differing abilities together to improve quality of life and encourage true inclusion. The Bellingham High School chapter puts together high school students with other students in the local school system who may have some unique needs, cultivating relationships that help build confidence and self-esteem. 
For the fourth year, educational leaders in the town organized a Special Olympics for these outstanding athletes to compete in. This year, 60 Bellingham students and young adults were joined by about 20 Blackstone-Millville students for the games, which made it even more exciting. Family members, friends, and fellow classmates filled the bleachers on both sides of the BHS football field, holding up signs of encouragement, clapping and shouting to cheer them on. The ceremony began with some Bellingham High School trumpeters (Sophia Almoussali, Suraji Iyer and Adam Doran) setting the music for a parade of all athletes and their buddies, holding a banner that proudly proclaimed, “I can…and I will! Watch me.” This was followed by the opening ceremonies with a warm welcome and uplifting words from Assistant School Superintendent Carolyn Rafferty about the program and event. The event planning team was then recognized for all their hard work, and included Suzanne Michel (Director of Student Services), Jessica Cournoyer (Student Services Secretary), Ashley Saiyan (Para Educator, Best Buddies Lead), and Kerry Farrell (Bellingham Town and Unified Athletics).
“We were so excited to include Blackstone-Millville in this event this year,” says Suzanne. “It’s a lot of work to get something like this off the ground, but it is absolutely worth the effort, and we had an amazing team of people who really wanted it to be seamless.”
“We are very fortunate to have people involved who care about the success of our children,” says Kerry. “The success of this event is due to the overwhelming support from the community and the dedicated staff members who made sure that it moved forward.”  

A beautiful rendition of the National Anthem, complete with improvised cymbal crashes, was sung by Lucien Ducharme (BHS), and Logan Brett (BMR) read the Special Olympics oath. Elementary school students from Bellingham and Blackstone-Millville then kicked the event off with an official “let the games begin!” shout.
From walking, running, wheelchair, and relay races (with inflatable torches) to softball throwing and long jumps in the sand pit, the strong bonds between the athletes and their Buddies were obvious, with encouraging smiles and shouts of “You’ve got this!” and “Let’s do this together!” floating above the clapping crowd. While participants competed, those not currently in an event had access to lawn games and other fun activities. When they were competing, their confidence and resilient spirits soared high, where every crossed finish line was a victory and showcased their potential. 
“It is truly amazing to watch these kids grow and learn together,” shares Ashley. “The volunteers learn to be kind, compassionate, and patient leaders and helpers of the community, while the students they pair with in the program get to feel a true sense of belonging, love and trust.”
The impact of the event on our community is a real understanding of what determination and true sportsmanship should look like. Even in competition, athletes cheered for and helped each other along the way. They smiled whether they came in first or not and celebrated their opponents. They reminded us that diversity and inclusivity should not just be something we strive for, rather it should be at the core of everything we do. Athletes gave their all and everyone proudly walked away with gold medals for a job well done. 
A special thank you to families for donated food items, Blackhawk Pizza for discounted refreshments and Heavy Press Sports for discounted t-shirt production.
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