FARRELL — After completing her swim — all the way up and all the way back — Ava Rose emerged triumphant from the pool at Farrell High School.
Ava, 10, then claimed her prize, a hug from companion Nannette Sirofchuck, a special needs aide at Mercer Elementary School.
The swim was Ava’s favorite part of her participation Wednesday in the Shenango Valley Special Games, an athletic event for special needs students from schools throughout Mercer County. This year’s Special Games, the 50th annual event, continues today.
“I want to do it again,” Ava said, as she beamed at the very thought of getting back in the water.
On Friday, about 450 students will participate in the games’ closing day, said Kayla Burt, an autism support teacher at Sharon City School District and co-director of the Shenango Valley Special Games.
Students from Commodore Perry, Farrell, Greenville, Grove City, Hermitage, Jamestown, Lakeview, Mercer, Reynolds, Sharon, Sharpsville and West Middlesex compete in the Special Games.
Burt and Kaylee DeNoi, an autistic support teacher at Sharpsville Area School District, took over running the event this year because the Special Games are important to their students.
“My students, from Day 1, in my classroom, they ask about the Special Games,” Burt said. “This is one of their favorite times of the school year.”
Wednesday’s events featured sports including swimming, basketball and rhythmic gymnastics in Farrell High School’s gymnasium and swimming pool. With the Special Games at Farrell, some of the high school’s athletes — including members of the Steelers’ state champion football team — turned out to help guide the event’s competitors through their paces.
“Every year, I come here. I get to see the kids, interact with them, put a smile on their faces,” said Farrell senior basketball standout Re’yonte Hammonds, who has been volunteering at the event since his freshman year. “I’m just glad I get to see them smile because every day, I’m pretty sure that they don’t get to have fun like this.”
Farrell’s roster of volunteers also included Farrell football players Kyi Wright, Gary Satterwhite III, Anthony Jackson and Christian Lewis.
“It’s good to see a smile on their faces when they leave,” Wright said.
One of those smiles belonged to Farrell seventh-grader Ryan Stewart. She spent much of the morning draining three-pointers from the arc at Farrell’s gym.
“Shooting threes,” Stewart said when asked to name the strongest part of her game. “And, actually, free throws.”
Competition concludes today with track and field at Sharpsville Stadium, after bowling Thursday. Burt said she is hopeful that Lois Kilbert, who founded the Shenango Valley Special Games in 1970, will be on hand for the 50th manifestation of what she began.
Kilbert, who had been a teacher for the deaf in the Hickory School District, now Hermitage School District, was frustrated because the Special Olympics didn’t have competition for hearing-impaired children.
“So she said, ‘I’ll start my own,’” Burt said.
The Special Games provide special needs students of all types an opportunity to mix with their counterparts from other schools, not just athletically but socially. Brianna Martell of Sharon, who has been coming to the Special Games for a few years, said she has made new friends at the event.
Martell has rave reviews not only for the Special Games, but also for her life skills teacher, Melinda Sandine.
“She’s the best teacher ever,” Martell said.
DeNoi said the Special Games is one of the best things ever for her students.
“This is everything to the kids.” she said. “Some of the kids don’t get to take part in sports. For them to be able to come and take part in these sports, like swimming and bowling, and track and field alongside of their peers, it’s everything to them.”
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