A special group of athletes were the stars of the show at the annual Livingston Parish Special Olympics Track and Field Meet on March 24 on the carpet-covered football field at Live Oak High School.

Special Olympians, numbering 146, came from 20 different schools from throughout the parish to participate in a variety of track and field events. The winners will advance to the Special Olympics Louisiana at Southeastern Louisiana University later this summer.

However, comments from the parents, teachers, coaches and fellow students who were part of day’s festivities indicated that the day was not about winners and losers. “All athletes who participate are winners,” said Paulette Roberts, the Livingston Parish coordinator for Special Olympics.

“We work all year for this day, and it is a pure joy. I have been participating in Special Olympics as a coach and coordinator for about 20 years, and I look forward to this day all year,” she said.

Roberts said she has been referred to as “an angel without wings” but added that she continues to be a part of Special Olympics because it means so much to so many special people.

The day was not just about the athletes. The track and field meet afforded parents, teachers, coaches and students to come together and experience the joy of sports and participation in an event that rewards hard work and determination on the part of the Olympians.

Jessica Bonura, a special education teacher at Live Oak High, is the faculty leader of a group of students who participate in the REACH Club. The letters in REACH stand for Respect Everyone and Create Harmony. Bonura said REACH members give of their time to work with students who have disabilities.

“REACH gives our students the opportunity to build friendships with those who have disabilities and to be a part of something that is rewarding and uplifting,” Bonura said.

“I have been given the opportunity to watch special students grow and accomplish many things,” said Alexis Miles, a senior leader of REACH. “I get to watch my friends have fun and enjoy their lives. Getting to know Special Olympians and work with them has shown me how to break down barriers and make new friends.”

Bonura said REACH volunteers do not limit their efforts to the Special Olympic games. REACH members take students with disabilities to movies, join them for visits to restaurants and offer them other experiences that they might not otherwise have.

Loren Pizzalato, a special education teacher at Live Oak Middle School, said Special Olympics is a rewarding experience for her students.

“Our athletes take a tremendous amount of pride in what they are able to accomplish through Special Olympics,” she said. “They look forward to this day all year. The athletes take special joy participating in sports, and their success is a source of great pride and joy. Today is their day, and it is one of the highlights of the year for them.” The athletes were afforded the opportunity to participate in the following events: standing long jump; softball and tennis ball throw; wheel chair races; 25-, 50- and 100-meter dashes; and relay races.

Special Olympians tend to concentrate on one event, but some participate in more than one sport.

Kayla Ordes, of Live Oak Middle School, was entered in the tennis ball and softball throws and the wheelchair race. Asked what Special Olympics meant to her, she quickly replied, “I get to beat everyone else. I like winning medals. I have some medals hanging on my wall.” She has participated in Special Olympics for five years and said she wants to “keep getting better.”

Charlie Courville, director of Outreach and Area Management with Louisiana Special Olympics, said the most important thing about Special Olympics is that it involves both those with disabilities and everyone else.

“It is inspiring to see the spirit of volunteerism that is such a big part of Special Olympics,” Courville said. “I applaud the teachers, coaches, parents and all the others who volunteer to work with the Special Olympians and to be at our meets to help in so many different ways. We couldn’t do it without the volunteers.”

Courville added that many of the high school volunteers enjoy the Special Olympics involvement so much that they continue to be part of the games after they graduate from high school.

“We have students who have graduated from high school call us and ask if they can volunteer to keep helping with the games. The experience of engaging with those with disabilities is so rewarding that they want to continue making it a part of their lives,” he said.

Courville said participation in Special Olympics has many rewards for the athletes. He pointed out that the discipline learned from preparing for Special Olympics games can help the handicapped find employment.

“The athletes have to learn how to be on time for practice and for the games. They have to learn how to train and stay healthy. Certainly, the realization that they can succeed is important. There are just so many benefits that come from Special Olympics. … I guess that’s why they are called ‘special,’ ” Courville said.

The day’s two-hour track meet concluded with an awards ceremony and all athletes were treated to lunch provided by local businesses and organizations. The lunch was another facet in the total community effort that has sustained Special Olympics on the national stage for more than 50 years.