DOBSON — In its 39th year, the Special Olympics Spring Games is as popular as ever among a group of Surry County’s most special athletes.
On Friday the annual event was held at Surry Central High School.
Surry County Parks and Recreation Director Daniel White said more than 300 athletes took part in the games, an average crowd for the games.
Athletes had the opportunity to take part in events such as the softball throw, standing and running long jump, sprints and a wheelchair race, but the fun began before White declared the games open.
Teams from local schools, residential facilities and individual athletes were welcomed with cheers as they walked across the football field at Surry Central. Then the opening ceremonies, led in part by athletes, kicked off.
Surry Central JROTC handled the presentation of the colors, and Orlando Cienfuegos carried the Special Olympics flag into the stadium. Dylan O’Neal led the pledge of allegiance, and Stephen Sanders recited the Special Olympics Oath. The Surry Central chorus sang the national anthem.
Sammy Epperson was named the Special Olympics athlete of the year.
“He’s been taking part for over two decades,” said Nicole Hooker, who presented the award. “He’s had an impact that will last a lifetime.”
Hooker went on to describe Sammy as “loving, caring, hard-working, humble, giving and a great dancer.”
Prior to that, a hat was passed from Surry Central’s principal to East Surry High School’s. Surry Central has hosted the games for the past two years, and East Surry will host them for the next two.
White said Surry Central set the bar high.
“This school opened its doors, and it opened its heart,” said White, who noted students and staff also raised more than $8,000 to help make the event a success.
“They did an amazing job,” said White in a subsequent interview.
Sheriff Graham Atkinson was also recognized during the opening ceremonies. Since taking office in 2007, Atkinson has escorted the Special Olympics torch bearer at every spring games. Atkinson’s last day as sheriff was Friday, and he said he couldn’t have imagined a better way to spend it.
“I’m so thankful that my last day as sheriff could be spent with this group of special athletes,” said Atkinson, as he held back tears.
While escorting the torch bearer is an honor for Atkinson, serving as torch bearer is a special honor which goes to only one athlete every year.
In 2017, it went to Rose Hodges, an 18-year-old student at Surry Central.
Sheena Jestes, Rose’s teacher, said she had already been thinking the honor should go to Rose when she got told to choose a girl.
“She’s my only girl,” chuckled Jestes.
After lighting the torch, Rose took part in the 50-meter run, the softball throw and the standing long jump. She noted she has been taking part in Special Olympics since early childhood.
White said organizing the event takes quite a bit of doing. Planning for the next year’s games begins almost immediately after the conclusion of the current year’s games.
It’s a community effort, said White. The hosting school provides the venue and raises money. Each athlete is assigned a “buddy,” a student at the hosting school.
Local businesses also help out. Companies such as Food Lion, Phillips Van Heusen, Weyerhaeuser, Carolina Handling Raymond, Walmart of Elkin, G&B Energy, Wayne Farms and Atkins Fertilizer provided volunteers. Chariots of Fire, a local motorcycle club, also volunteered at Friday’s event.
Though all of the entities which helped out were recognized, White had something special for Phillips Van Heusen.
“Whenever there is a need, P.V.H. always steps up,” said White as he handed representatives from the company a corporate award.
While skies were dark during the opening ceremonies, the clouds parted in time for athletes to enjoy the sun while participating in the event.
The 2016 games had to be moved indoors due to inclement weather. White was happy the weather cooperated in 2017.
“Being outdoors just provides an overall better experience for our athletes,” explained White. “We strive to provide these athletes with the best experience possible each year.”
Andy is a staff writer and may be reached at 415-4698.