About 100 students got off the sidelines and onto the playing field Thursday at Stapley Junior High School in the first Special Olympics in seven years for Mesa schoolchildren with severe disabilities.
For many of the participants, including 5-year-old Audrey DuRee of Wilson Elementary School, the event was her first opportunity to compete in a public arena.
"We’ve been talking about this all week," said Audrey’s mother, Kelly DuRee. "She could barely sleep last night she was so excited."
Johnson Elementary School athlete David Enriquez, 12, enjoyed the games with his therapy dog, Shadow. David’s father, Fred Enriquez, said Shadow serves as David’s ambassador and helps David meet new people.
"David’s excited. He’s happy to be here," Enriquez said.
Special Olympics Arizona helped organize the event, but competition director Mark Villa gave all of the credit for Thursday’s success to Stapley special education teacher Jennifer Alig — who has been working since April to bring back the program that was lost seven years ago because of budget constraints.
Athletes on Thursday came from 16 Mesa schools and ranged in age from 3 to 22. Events included Frisbee bowling, ring toss, T-ball, tug-ofwar and a giant obstacle course. Medals were passed out liberally, and the Phoenix Suns Gorilla helped keep the crowds excited.
"They’re all out here having a good time, and they get a break from their daily routine," said Mountain View High School senior Justin Richardson, 17, a Boy Scout who helped coordinate the staff of 75 volunteers as part of his Eagle Scout project.
Now that the Severe Multiple Disabilities Special Olympics has returned to Mesa, Alig said she will make sure the event stays in the district and grows into something that occurs more than once a year.
"We’re looking forward to seeing this continue," she said.