Tumwater High School junior Cierra Hughes said she didn’t know what to expect when she volunteered Thursday to help at the annual Day of Champions, a track and field event at Tumwater Stadium for students with special needs.
It turned out to be an incredible experience, she said.
“I love all of the joy in their eyes,” Hughes said of the competitors. “It’s so much fun.”
About 570 students in kindergarten through high school from all over South Sound participated in the daylong event, according to organizer Justin Gurnsey, a life skills teacher at Bush Middle School in Tumwater.
“We have the most people we’ve ever had,” he said of the event, now in its 11th year.
The day began with a procession to the Olympics theme song and included several track and field-style games, lunch and a giant dance party on the field.
There were big smiles, high fives and proud moments.
“It’s an overwhelming emotion to see all of these students who have special needs,” said Mark Gosney, whose daughter, Jeneva Kuenzi, 8, participated in the event. “They’re out having a great time. There’s a lot of love in this stadium.”
Makalia Eastman, 15, of Black Hills High School, said her favorite activity was kicking the soccer ball into a goal. She said she also enjoyed seeing former teachers and friends from other schools.
“It’s really cool,” said Eastman, who has been attending Day of Champions for several years. “It’s getting better — more stuff, more kids.”
Each district paid for their students’ transportation, but the rest of the program was paid for with about $10,000 in private donations, Gurnsey said.
Participants received a free T-shirt, a medal, photographs and lunch.
It was staffed by a crew of nearly 100 high school volunteers and scores of parents and teachers. Many of the student volunteers are involved in their high school’s leadership programs, Gurnsey said.
“It’s great for our kids to see others are supporting them, and they’re part of a community as a whole,” said Myranda Jolly, who teaches in a program for developmentally delayed students at Woodland Elementary School in Lacey.
Although the goal of the program is to rally around special-needs students, it’s not uncommon for volunteers to get just as much joy — if not more — out of the event, Gurnsey said.
“Here’s a group of kids who have greater problems day to day than (the volunteers) can imagine,” Gurnsey said. “They always walk away realizing they have it better than someone else.”Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433 firstname.lastname@example.org @Lisa_Pemberton