Special Olympics volunteers show love at Caldwell County event

Feb. 02, 2013 @ 09:41 AM

Kristina Hatton could have spent the summer of her junior year in high school earning spending money at a part-time job. Instead, she spent her days working with developmentally challenged children at the J. Iverson Riddle Developmental Center in Morganton. She is also close to her nephew, who lives with cerebral palsy.

On Friday, 17-year-old Hatton was one of 100 youth and 30 adult volunteers at the Special Olympics Winter Games, held at South Caldwell High School. Like the others who give freely of their time and effort for the games, she has a special place in her heart for the kids who get fulfillment from simply dribbling a basketball or getting their face painted.

“The kids touch my heart, they make my day,” she said prior to the opening ceremonies.

Special Olympics Caldwell County serves children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Training and competition is offered in various sports. Winter games focus on basketball-related skills, such as the target pass, spot shots and dribble. There is a separate area for adaptive events tailored toward athletes with less mobility. The 164 participating athletes come from schools and special programs in Caldwell County, and range in age from 3 to the late 70s.

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Volunteers also assist with parking, greeting visitors, signing up athletes for events, serving lunches, or simply giving directions to the events.

“The event is driven by volunteers,” said event organizer Melissa Harrington. “We have a great group of people.”

Helping build a bridge of understanding of children with special needs is Project Unify, a school-level club that helps with community service projects, assists students in special-needs classes, and integrates the kids into normal school activities. On Friday, Project Unify members teamed up with the volunteers to help cheer on and support the athletes.

“It’s great to see (the athletes) get excited and get out of their self-contained classrooms, to be themselves, get involved with athletics,” said Stephanie Helton, who with Kim Story heads up Project Unify at Granite Falls Middle School.

Lauren Price took time off from her job in IT sales in Charlotte to volunteer for the games. Price, 26, also volunteers as a football and basketball coach for kids up to age 25 in the Charlotte area with special needs. She learned about community service from her mother, who happens to be Melissa Arrington.

“I feel led to do it, it’s something I do without a second thought,” Price, a 2004 South Caldwell High grad, said. “Why not give back to those in need? These kids get so much joy out of doing something as simple as making a basketball goal. This puts the world into perspective for me, to realize what matters most.”

From the opening ceremony to the close of the games, the raucous crowd cheered with every made shot, or every medal earned. In the end, after the echo of the last bouncing ball died down, life returned to normal at the South Caldwell High gymnasium. Perhaps the message emblazoned on the backs of the T-shirts worn by the athletes summed it all up: “It takes more than one set of hands to change the world.”