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‘Always awesome’: Special Olympics event held at SUNY Fredonia

Elliana Leone, a first-grader at Fredonia Elementary School, successfully defended her first place finish in the adapted wheelchair race at last year’s Special Olympics event with another first place finish on Wednesday.

One of the most positive and heartwarming events of the year lived up to the hype again on Wednesday at the State University of New York at Fredonia. Hundreds of student athletes and volunteers from nine schools across the region filled Steele Hall and the fields outside to participate in the region’s annual Special Olympics competition.

Wednesday’s event brought the community together for a celebration of Special Olympics throughout Chautauqua County. After more than 30 years of celebrating the Special Olympics in Chautauqua County with a major event, this was the second year the event was back at SUNY Fredonia for athletes to all come together.

“I think it’s wonderful to see kids of so many different ages from all over the county working together and cheering each other on to celebrate this awesome event,” said Jill Domenico, Dunkirk High School Unified Club Adviser.

The festivities began with the Law Enforcement Torch Run, commencing at Dunkirk High School shortly after 9 a.m. on Wednesday morning. Since the Law Enforcement Torch Run began in 1986, more than $14 million has been raised for the Special Olympics of New York.

Among those participating in the Torch Run was Dunkirk Senior Class President Zach Zentz. Just as he did a year ago, Zentz joined members of various branches of law enforcement to run a torch from his current school, Dunkirk High School, to his next school, SUNY Fredonia, where he will study criminal justice next year as a student athlete on the baseball team.

OBSERVER Photos by Braden Carmen Dominic Kemp, a Silver Creek student who attends the LoGuidice Center, smiles as he tosses a softball during the annual Special Olympics celebration at SUNY Fredonia on Wednesday.

“It’s always awesome. It never gets old,” Zentz said of the Special Olympics. “You see the smiles on all the people’s faces here. It’s always fun, and I know it makes a lot of people’s day.”

When the torch runners reached SUNY Fredonia shortly before 10 a.m., crowds of students and volunteers awaited them outside of Steele Hall for a warm welcome. The seas of supporters poured through the doors of the building to make their way down the steps to take a ceremonial lap around the track as part of the event’s opening ceremony.

“To come here and be welcomed by this huge parade with important leaders from all over the area, I think it says so much about our county and how people show up for each other to support each other,” said Domenico.

After several speakers addressed the crowd and students led the National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance, the games began.

Zentz hung around all day as one of many student volunteers at the event. He was joined by some of Dunkirk’s best athletes, including Mike Hanlon, Lauryn McCracken, Conner Jakubowicz, and several others.

Runners compete in a race at the Special Olympics inside Steele Hall at SUNY Fredonia on Wednesday.

“It sounds so cliche, but just to make sure everyone is having fun,” Zentz said of his motivation to volunteer at the event. He then joked he was looking forward to the hot dog lunch. “Just having a good time is what keeps it going for me.”

Meghan Lancaster, a Dunkirk volunteer, was stationed at the finish line of the indoor races to pass out ribbons for the winners of the races. She was motivated to volunteer at the event this year after Dunkirk’s own school wide Special Olympics event last week.

“It’s a lot of fun, and I am having a blast seeing all the kids super excited and being able to hand out ribbons to them,” Lancaster said. She added that while she is making their day by awarding a ribbon, their reactions are making hers, as well.

Of the nine schools represented, the Dunkirk City School District and the LoGuidice Educational Center (BOCES) were the most heavily represented.

“I think it really shows how much importance and emphasis and support the district gives to our students and our athletes. I think that they feel that, just knowing that the school is behind them,” Domenico said. “Affording them this opportunity to come and participate in an event like this, it says a lot about how wonderful our district is.”

Student athletes compete at the Special Olympics in the adapted wheelchair race at SUNY Fredonia’s Steele Hall on Wednesday.

Also in attendance were participants from Brocton, Forestville, Fredonia, Gowanda, Pine Valley, Silver Creek, and students from North Collins BOCES.

“I like that we can bring everyone together and celebrate all of our programs,” Lancaster said.

The LoGuidice Center took on a heavy load with the planning of the event, in coordination with SUNY Fredonia and Special Olympics.

“It’s really cool to see all the kids get together and just have a chance to be kids and have fun,” said Matt Henry, School Counselor at the LoGuidice Center. “It’s nice to see all the schools working together to make it student-centered and student-first.”

Henry has been involved with Special Olympics events with the LoGuidice Center for over a decade. He also spoke to the presence the LoGuidice Center had at the event.

“We’ve been an integral part of the community for many, many years,” said Henry. “We’ve been a constant in representing our Special Ed. students in northern Chautauqua County.”

Last year’s event still had its own health-related hurdle, as the air quality was so poor from the Canadian wildfires that a haze forced all of the events inside. However, this year, the weather couldn’t have been better and everything was back to normal for the first time in several years. Hot dogs and cotton candy were passed out in the fields outside of Steele Hall, while throwing competitions, balloons, and a bubble machine were spreading the cheer nearby at the tennis courts.

Inside Steele Hall, races and jumps were hosted for all ages and abilities. A highlight of the early races was a repeat victory from one of last year’s winners of the wheelchair adapted race, Elliana Leone. Last year, Leone’s classmates at the Wheelock School in Mark Putney’s class came along to cheer her on her way to victory. This year, Leone made sure to head back to her first grade class at Fredonia Elementary with another first place ribbon.

Janet Decker represented the Silver Creek Central School District as its Unified Club Advisor. The annual Special Olympics celebration is one of Decker’s favorite events each year.

“I like being here because it allows my kids to have an atmosphere where they feel successful, no matter what they are doing,” Decker said. “… They are just doing the events and having fun, and getting to be with their friends.”

Decker has been involved with the Special Olympics for over 20 years. She noted how she loves the atmosphere of the events and the relationships with others in similar fields of passion that grow over the years. “The friendships grow, but so do the relationships with the students,” Decker said.

She also noted how Dunkirk student Mekiah Sedlacek recognized her from Unified sports contests as an opponent, and made sure to run over to say hello.

“It’s just a joyous experience, and it’s always happy,” Decker said. “You can’t leave here not happy.”

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