HAMPDEN, Maine — Justin White isn’t like most teenagers. He needs a walker to get around and has difficulty forming words. Simple motor skills that most people take for granted are difficult for him.
None of that mattered Friday when White, 17, hit a ball into the air with his racket, eliciting a wave of cheers from those who were watching.
White was one of several participants in the inaugural Central Maine Motor Activities Day, an event put on by Special Olympics Maine at Hampden Academy. The Maine Motor Activities Day had been held at North Yarmouth Academy for 15 years before Special Olympics Maine members realized that there were athletes in northern Maine who were slipping through the cracks because of their distance from the Yarmouth event, which is now called the Southern Maine Motor Activities Training Day.
“We’ll be coming back, I guarantee it,” said Mark Capano, program director for Special Olympics Maine.
The event gives athletes with severe intellectual disabilities the chance to participate in physical activities that, although mundane to an average person, are a challenge for the participants. Some of these challenges included kicking goals with a soccer ball, shooting baskets and bowling.
The noncompetitive event featured an awards ceremony at the end, with every athlete being given a gold medal.
“This is their day to shine … their day to have students clapping for them and interacting with them,” Capano said. “They don’t get out much. They never get an opportunity to hear [someone] clapping for them. It doesn’t happen often so it’s a big deal.”
Michael Bisson is Hampden Academy’s athletic director and worked with Capano and Special Olympics coach Andrea Lee to train the student volunteers and up the event’s time and place.
“We’ve had [no event] in this part of the state, so with the new school we thought we’d be able to host that and let kids in central Maine participate.” Bisson said.
A number of Hampden Academy students were on hand to assist the athletes with activities. Students from the honors society, student council and leadership team were joined by friends who wanted to sign up.
“It’s nice to see the students coming on board and helping out,” Bisson said. “Anytime you can see kids smiling and participating in athletics it’s a good thing. I’ve seen a lot of smiles [today].”
One of the student volunteers, 17-year-old Stephanie Walker, was particularly excited to help out. Walker’s childhood friend Emily Chasse has Down syndrome. Chasse and Walker lived on the same street growing up and would eat lunch together until Chasse graduated from Hampden Academy in 2013.
“It’s an awesome feeling [to be involved]. These are the happiest people I’ve been around,” Walker said. “They are never negative. It makes my day.”
Seventeen-year-old Kelsey Tripp isn’t disabled to the same extent as the participating athletes, but she was on hand to show support and enjoy the positive atmosphere.
“Basketball [is my favorite event],” Tripp said. “I like dribbling [the ball].”
Tripp will be competing in the backstroke, front-stroke and relay swimming events at the 46th annual Special Olympics Maine event June 6-8 at the University of Maine in Orono.