Everybody won at this smile-on-every-face competition for students with challenges

--- Published on May 01st 2015 ---
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Everybody won.

The formal title was “Invitational Field Day,” but that hardly describes what unfolded at Natomas High School today – a feel-good, community building, relationship forming, helping hand, reaching out, everybody-wins type of athletic competition featuring middle school, high school and adult transitional students who face physical and mental challenges every day.

“Seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces, it was great,” said Gabriel, one of more than 100 student volunteers helping with the event. “It was well worth it.”

Between 100 and 200 special-needs students from Natomas Unified, Twin Rivers, Washington Unified and San Juan school districts participated in events geared to give everyone a moment in the sun, regardless of mental or physical challenge. Options ranged from running events to long jump, softball toss, Frisbee throw and wheelchair races.

First and second place ribbons were awarded to the top two finishers in each category – but everybody else scored a ribbon, too, a white one designating them as third-place finishers in three age divisions. Nobody finished last.

“There are a lot of happy faces around,” said Gregory, who won a first-place ribbon in the long jump.

Asked what she liked best, Mariah, 17, couldn’t make up her mind. “I liked everything,” she said.

Mark, a sophomore at Natomas High School, said what he liked best were the non-competitive activities that athletes could do while others were competing – bean bag toss, for example, or Hula Hoop. “I did a lot of activities,” he said.

Stacy Kalfsbeek-Hickel who coordinated the event with Kim Taxara, both NUSD teachers, said the goal was to celebrate the success of all students, applaud them for what they can do, demonstrate their talents and gifts, and build stronger ties between students with special needs and the general student population.

“They’ve just embraced them,” Kalfsbeek-Hickel said of NHS student volunteers paired one-to-one with competitors, applauding them and helping them with whatever was needed – in some cases, pushing a  wheelchair or holding a hand to steady a partner's gait. To demonstrate that the competition was all in fun, not cutthroat, relay races featured rubber chickens in place of batons.

“It’s amazing what’s happening here," Kalfsbeek-Hickel said. "And relationships are starting to be formed.”

Vernon, an NHS senior, agreed with her. “The more you hang out with these kids, you get more of an emotional bond with them.” Why do it? “I just like to help kids with special needs who can’t really do the things I can do,” Vernon said.

Added Evelise, a 17-year-old volunteer: “It helps them understand us more, and it helps us communicate with them.”