Annual Day of Champions continues to live up to name

Students with special needs shine during track and field event

lpemberton@theolympian.comMay 24, 2013 

Every year, Tumwater High School student Devlen Newell looks forward to the Day of Champions, a track and field event for students with special needs.

“He’s been so excited the past few days,” his mother, Candy Newell, said during the event Thursday at Tumwater District Stadium. “It’s on the calendar, and he keeps pointing to it.”

After running through the event’s obstacle course, Devlen, 20, stopped to give his mom a kiss.

No words were needed. The giant smile on his face said it all.

“His brothers get to do sporting events throughout the year. This is his sporting event,” his dad, Eldon Newell, said. “This is his day to shine.”

About 530 students in grades K-12 registered for this year’s Day of Champions, said volunteer Karen Schoessel.

“This is the biggest one we’ve ever had,” Schoessel said.

The event drew students from all eight public school districts in Thurston County, as well as from Shelton School District in Mason County.

“Today is about these kids,” said coordinator Justin Gurnsey, who teaches in the Life Skills program at Bush Middle School in Tumwater. “It’s about giving them a day to be recognized, cheered for and noticed. … They get to be the center of attention.”

Jefferson Middle School paraeducator Lynlee Lusk said she was impressed with the event, which included music, food and activities such as a 50-yard dash, a big ball roll, a javelin throw with pool noodles and a soccer goal shoot.

“The camaraderie is pretty awesome,” Lusk said.

The first Day of Champions was held in 2003 for students in North Thurston Public Schools. By 2007, it had moved to Tumwater District Stadium and involved other districts.

“My goal is for every county to have their own Day of Champions at the same time,” Gurnsey said.

This year’s event was staffed by more than 100 volunteers, including 12-year-old Kardel Arnold and 13-year-old Elena Miller, student teaching assistants at Washington Middle School’s Developmental Learning Center.

“I like to see the kids enjoy themselves,” Elena said. “It’s fun to see them get out here and play around and experience new things.”

Added Kardel: “We’re showing the kids they can do anything, and to not give up and they can have a great time.”

The event was paid for with $7,000 in private donations. Participants received a free T-shirt, a medal, professional photographs and lunch.

“It’s their time,” said Tumwater High School student Maegan Busenbark, 15, as she cheered for students at the 50-yard dash. “It’s making them feel they’re welcome everywhere, and getting them out of their comfort zone.”

“They’ll always remember this,” she added.

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433

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