Sprints and smiles
Hundreds of students from Butte County and beyond participate in Special Olympics event
As 14-year-old Emily Marjama grabbed her mom’s hand to run the 50-meter dash, she was confident. That’s not because she’d already shaken off her nerves during the 25-meter dash, an event in which she placed second earlier that morning, but rather because she took to the starting line with friends and hundreds of onlookers cheering them on at the 16th annual Special Olympics School Site Track & Field Meet in Oroville.
Emily’s cheering section in the stands at Harrison Stadium last Friday (May 6) included her brothers and grandparents. The eighth-grader from Paradise Intermediate School started the race with a huge smile on her face, placed third and gave out high-fives after being awarded a green ribbon. Emily has been a part of the track and field meet for the past seven years, and her mother, Reina Duran-Marjama, says the excitement of participating keeps her daughter coming back year after year.
“It’s a chance to see people that have any kind of special need or any kind of disability just come and participate in a sport that they wouldn’t normally be able to participate in,” she said. “There are so many smiles; they’re so happy to be here. This is specifically for them; something that’s done just for them, and they know that and it makes them feel important.”
The event featured 25-, 50- and 100-meter dashes as well as field events like tennis ball and Frisbee throws, pool-noodle javelin tosses and jump pits. The stadium was filled with more than 600 students and their families, from 46 schools throughout Butte County as well as a few from Nevada City.
On the lead-up to the competition, Emily had been practicing with Gina McKellar, an adapted physical education specialist for Butte County Office of Education. McKellar visits schools in the county to introduce students with disabilities to physical activities and sports as a way to promote a healthy lifestyle, as well as to help coordinate events like the track and field meet.
“This is one of their favorite days of the entire year,” McKeller said. “They get to be with all of their peers and all these people cheering for them. They get to show off their skills we’ve been teaching them in P.E., and everyone’s a winner. It’s all positive, it’s all fun. They give you, as teacher or a volunteer, so much more than you give them. It’s so fulfilling; I think it’s the best job in the whole world.”
About 300 volunteers, including students from Chico State, Butte College and a few from local high schools, helped the athletes throughout the meet. One of them, Gabriel Estrada, a graduate student at Chico State studying to be an adapted P.E. teacher, had worked as a coach at Little Chico Creek Elementary School for the past couple of months to train students in running, jumping and throwing.
“It’s different from anything else that I’ve done in my education,” he said. “It’s helped me grow as a coach and as an educator.”
Estrada has bonded with the children and their families. He said that Friday’s event, because it was the culmination of his students’ hard work and practice, was particularly touching.
“It’s interesting to read textbooks and do projects and write papers, but it’s a totally different thing to see it manifest itself,” he said. “It’s not just something you’re reading anymore; it’s happening right in front of your eyes.”
For Emily’s mother, it’s the people who encourage her daughter and give her confidence that make the event so special.
“It means that much more to watch her light up when she passes the finish line or be excited when people give her a high five or say, ‘Way to go, Emily,’” she said. “They just encourage her, and to see her encouraged like that and to see her excited to do these things, it makes me so proud of her and so proud of people for embracing them no matter what.”