Following a prestigious Olympic torch and large banner, 22 competitors proudly wound their way onto the Franklin County School football field Feb. 23 for the county’s third annual Special Olympics competition.

Teams of smiling athletes, ages 8 to 16, from both FCS and the Apalachicola Bay Charter School lined up in front of a group of enthusiastic supporters as the Athlete’s Anthem Song played and the Athlete’s Oath was pronounced. Student Jacob Maxwell held the Special Olympic torch aloft while Janalyn Hippensteal and Khambrel Anthony upheld the banner.

“Let me win. But, if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt,” competitor Alex Howard quoted from the oath. The students then began the competition for which they had trained daily during the 2017-18 school year.

“Special Olympics is about athletes trying their best,” said competitor Michael Melton, an eighth grade student at FCS.

His Special Olympics coach, Stacie DeVaughn, agreed. “They did try their best and each one performed some inspiring feats,” the FCS instructor said.

Cheri Maxwell, the director of Special Olympics for Franklin County and executive assistant for ABC School, said the students “had a ball” participating in the event. “Everyone had great, big smiles. It’s all about them,” she said, then laughed. “They loved it, but the first thing they wanted afterwards was to go get pizza.”

Competitor Jacob Maxwell made the festivities even more fun by dancing and entertaining the crowd in between events while his fellow athletes cheered for fellow competitors, took selfies and proudly flexed their muscles.

DeVaughn said the event is “much more than an athletic competition” with athletes working daily to learn gross motor skills, improve behaviors, follow multistep directions and increase memory skills.

“It provides athletes with an opportunity to build confidence and self-esteem,” she said. “They are challenged to improve communication and interpersonal skills and to form relationships with coaches, volunteers and fellow athletes.”

Jimmy and Shirley Sapp, owners of the Red Pirate restaurant and game room in Eastpoint, are very much aware of how important Special Olympics can be in a child’s life as Jimmy’s sister was a former participant.

“We are so proud the school has a Special Olympics team,” Shirley Sapp said. "So many kids in our community need it.”

She added they enjoy showing their support for the team and invited the kids to have a fun day at the Red Pirate. The Sapps also made a monetary donation to Special Olympics.

Maxwell said many volunteers helped make the event successful including Special Olympics coaches and organizers Jody Lively and Stacie DeVaughn, Master of Ceremonies Matt Hersey, DJ Robbie Clark, and photographer Gina Taranto. Other volunteers included Christine Boyd, Chimene Johnson, Elizabeth Kirvin, Stacey Kirvin, Katie Ward, Jeff Knutson, Katie Lacour, Michelle Chambers, Tydron Wynn, Lindsay Bockelman, Christy Thompson and the ABC School Beta Club.

Maxwell noted the ABC School BETA club gave a $700 donation to the event. “This is money the students raised through a fundraiser they held at the school,” she said.

DeVaughn said FCS students Chelsie Woods, Kimberly Turrell, Tyrell Green and Allison Hunnings stepped up into leadership positions as assistant coaches, helping athletes throughout the year.

“They worked every single day to help train other students,” she said. “I am so proud of them.” She added the competitors were very well-behaved and she saw a great improvement in their ability to follow directions.

“I especially want to thank Sacred Heart (Hospital on the Gulf in Port St. Joe) which made the physicals available to our athletes on our FCS campus,” DeVaughn said. “I don't know that the physicals would have gotten done if they hadn't provided a physician, sports therapist, and nurse.”

She added Volunteer Services & Physician Advocate Robert Richardson organized the physicals. “It wouldn't have happened without him,” she said.

Winners from the county competition will go on to compete in an area competition in April that includes Leon, Wakulla and Liberty counties. Those winners will move on to state competition.

But first, they will receive that all important lunch (hopefully pizza) and a game of miniature golf donated by the Red Pirate.

A former journalist, Beverly Parish retired from teaching a couple years ago from the Franklin County Schools.