PRAIRIEVILLE — Kenneth Hathron rested on a bench outside of the track at Dutchtown High School Feb. 3 and enthusiastically waited for his event to begin — the 50-yard dash.
“I’m ready,” Hathron said smiling confidently.
The 10-year-old, who attends Lowery Elementary School in Donaldsonville, planned to not only secure his spot in the Special Olympics Area Games, March 4-5 at Woodlawn High School in Baton Rouge, during the time trials, he planned to win all three of his scheduled events, adding that he’d probably place first or second.
“Last year, I was first in long jump,” Hathron said.
About 120 special Olympians, from ages 8 to 99, competed in a variety of events, including the 50-yard dash, the softball throw, bowling, T-ball and golf — to name a few, said Jennifer Whittington, Ascension Parish coordinator for the Special Olympics.
Those who ran the fastest, threw the farthest and performed the best will move on to the Area Games, and those who place at the Area Games will move on to the State Games at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond in May, Whittington said.
“It gives them something to be excited about and shows them they can compete in things,” said Courtney Smith, a second-grade special education teacher at Donaldsonville Primary.
Smith, whose students have learning disabilities, said the students also get to spend time away from classroom and have some fun on the track.
“The best part is getting out and socializing and seeing things outside of Donaldsonville,” she said.
Despite the success of the local time trials, Whittington said, the number of participants was down from last year’s time trials for a few reasons. She said the state has changed the way it evaluates students based on their individual education plan, turning away students who formerly qualified to participate in the games. Also, unified sports, which pair special Olympians with buddies, students without disabilities, have been eliminated.
Clients from the ARC in Donaldsonville tested their skills, along with students from schools throughout Ascension Parish.
Early Feb. 3, Whittington said the games were on schedule and Olympians were moving swiftly from one event to another.
“We’ve got it running like a machine now, and we’re rolling,” Whittington said.
About 20 volunteers from the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office, the U.S. Marshals Service and students from Dutchtown High School’s Allied Health Program, which prepares students for careers in the medical field, have helped with the games for the past five years, Whittington said.
“It’s worth it to see everyone’s reaction,” Allied Health student Breanna Burd, 16, said.
“I like whenever they get off the bus and they smile,” Allied Health student Lydia Orgeron, 17, said.
The students dressed in costumes — Disney princesses — and greeted the athletes at the front gate.
“They feel like they’re in Disney World when they see all of the princesses,” Burd said.
Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Allison B. Hudson said the Sheriff’s Office is heavily involved in Special Olympics and hosts fundraisers throughout the year to keep the program going. She said the joy that comes from cheering on the athletes and watching them accomplish their dreams is immeasurable.
“We get more out of it than what we could ever put into it,” Kevin Harrison, of the Marshals Service, said.
In addition to manning the Special Olympics time trials, Hudson said the Sheriff’s Office’s volunteers will participate in the Polar Plunge on Feb. 28 at Cabella’s in Gonzales, and the torch run in May, both events designed to raise money for children with disabilities.
For Christina Hayes, 10, of Lowery Elementary School in Donaldsonville, running is her favorite event.
Hayes, who said it’s her first time competing in the time trials, said she’s been practicing for the games.
“It makes them feel like they belong somewhere,” special education teacher Cheryl Ezell said. “It makes them feel like they can succeed at something. They face so many challenges each day because of their disabilities that children without significant mental disabilities don’t face.”
The Special Olympics bring as much joy to Jolynda Martin as they do to her daughter, Victoria Martin, 11, she said.
“It makes her feel like there’s something in this world she can accomplish,” Martin said.
For information about the Louisiana Special Olympics, visit www.laso.org.