After being cancelled three years ago and modified the past two years, the Mater Dei Special Games were back where they belong last month, on the running track and sprawling field at Mater Dei High School.
MATER DEI SPECIAL GAMES PROVIDE INDIVIDUALS WITH DISABILITIES, RANGING IN AGE FROM 4 TO 45, THE OPPORTUNITY TO COMPETE IN TRACK AND FIELD EVENTS, INCLUDING A FOOTBALL THROW. PHOTOS COURTESY OF MATER DEI HIGH SCHOOL
Staged for the 37th time on March 18, the Special Games provide individuals with disabilities, ranging in age from 4 to 45, the opportunity to compete in races on the track and field events including volleyball, soccer, golf, a football throw and softball throw.
A MATER DEI GAMES PARTICIPANT TAKES A SWING DURING THE SPECIAL EVENT HELD ON MARCH 18. PHOTOS COURTESY OF MATER DEI HIGH SCHOOL
More than 100 athletes participated in this year’s Special Games and about 300 Mater Dei students volunteered their time, many serving as a “buddy” to an athlete for the day.
The job of the buddy is to help the special athlete with whatever they might need.
Other student and parent volunteers manned booths, managed individual competitions and chipped in wherever needed.
“This is the best of Mater Dei,” said Mater Dei athletic director Kevin Kiernen, who spent years working in special education at Troy High School before coming to Mater Dei. “The kids do a great job. The organizers do a great job. The volunteers do a great job. It is a great experience to mainstream the athletes with our kids and it is great for our kids to have that experience, so it’s the biggest win-win day of the year.”
One of the most energized of the student volunteers was Mater Dei senior Sophia Kurtz, who had command of the loudspeaker, announcing the first, second and third place finishers for each event.
The top three finishers then had the experience of standing on the victory podium to receive their ribbon.
Athletes who didn’t finish among the top three still received a ribbon for participating.
“This is a pure joy experience for people, and this is something they don’t forget,” Kurtz said. “I want to be a part of that for people. I want them to remember me just as I’m going to remember them.”
Senior Jadyn Coulter, who was volunteering at the Special Games for the second year in a row, was thrilled to see the competition return to the track and the field.
Coulter also volunteered at Boo Bash Halloween Dance Party at Mater Dei last fall, an annual event for individuals with Down Syndrome and their friends.
“It’s really fun being able to do it in a school environment and encourage my friends to do the same thing,” Coulter said. “And give back to the community but also just to have a lot of fun with people we don’t normally hang out with.”
Coulter first experienced how rewarding it is to volunteer with nonprofits serving individuals with disabilities when she volunteered last summer at RAD Camp, an Irvine nonprofit that offers a variety of activities and programs for adults and children with developmental disabilities. Coulter said she’ll be volunteering at RAD (Rising Above Disabilities) again this coming summer.
“Just seeing other people happy makes me happy,” Coulter said. “It brings me so much joy. It’s great to see that childlike joy on everyone’s faces.” Maurissa Talarico, director of Christian Service and Outreach at Mater Dei and Special Games organizer, said the families of the athletes are made aware of the Special Games through Mater Dei’s ongoing relationships with groups such as RAD Camp, the Down Syndrome Association and Catholic Charities.
Mater Dei also sends out email blasts to students and past participants to promote the Special Games each year, Talarico said.
Because of the buddies spending the entire day paired with their athlete, families of the athletes get a break from what is often round-the-clock job, she added.
“Many of the parents of children with special needs spend 24 hours a day with the child,” Talarico said “One of the blessings of Special Games at Mater Dei, it allows the parents to be a parent in a traditional manner, and root for their child, and be anxious for their child.”
Venezia O’Connor, 19, has been an athlete in Special Games since age 10. Katie O’Connor, Venezia’s mother, said her favorite part is watching the volunteer buddies interact with the athletes.
“The teenagers do a great job,” O’Connor said. “I can tell that it is their heart. It’s fun to see her grow. This is where she belongs. This is a safe place for us.”
Monique Hale of Garden Grove said it’s sometimes difficult to get her 11-year-old daughter Stella to exercise.
But the opposite is true at the Special Games.
“I couldn’t get her off the field,” said Hale, a 1990 Mater Dei graduate. “I think just going around and the whole environment. It just makes her want to go participate. She just loves everyone. It’s a great day, all around for everyone. Hugs are all around.”