Gilroy High School’s stadium had the feel of an Olympic venue Friday morning as the seventh annual Gifted Games attracted hundreds of special needs athletes from Santa Clara and San Benito counties.
Balloon arches and signs festooned the field as the school for the first time hosted the event that began in 2006 as a way to let 30 San Benito High School Life Skills students exercise and enjoy the spirit of competition.
“It’s amazing that the community has embraced it the same way here as they do in Hollister,” said Gilroy Life Skills teacher Ramona Trevino, who helped found the event when she taught at San Benito High School.
“It blows me away, Tania (De Leon) and I started this with 30 kids – now it’s 280. This allows the kids to have their day and to be a shining star. They have their moment,” Trevino said.
This was the third year that the Gifted Games expanded to include schools from Santa Clara County and the first of what will become an annual hosting rotation between Hollister and Gilroy.
“It’s going to touch the community at the high school here,” Trevino said, as students and parents filled the stadium bleachers. “They have no idea. This is going to change how (special needs) students are looked at. We’ve been working to build that culture here of awareness and inclusiveness.”
Jim Thomas, whose 10-year-old son attends Las Animas School, called the Gifted Games “awesome” as his child prepared to march onto the stadium track for the opening ceremonies. “The social aspect of being around other kids is great – particularly for kids with autism. It’s important for them.”
Greg Groce of Gilroy said his son, who attends Antonio del Buono Elementary, was having fun just preparing for the event.
“He’s always active, so he’s looking forward to it,” Groce said.
The Gifted Games kicked off with a mile run for middle school and high school students and continued with a softball throw, turbo javelin toss and running and standing long jumps.
Participants and their families were served lunch – provided by community donations – and then competed in wheelchair races and 50- and 100-yard dashes in the early afternoon.
Gilroy High School cheerleaders were assigned to each of the 17 participating schools, accompanying athletes, teachers and parents from event to event. Students loudly cheered during the march-in of athletes, urged on by student emcees Stefan Mercer and Charles Adams.
Athletes waved and smiled to the crowd as they were introduced to a standing ovation from the crowd, which reserved its biggest cheer for the athletes from Gilroy High.
Adriana Sanmillan, the special education coordinator at Spring Grove School in Hollister, said her students loved the social aspect of the Gifted Games, where every effort was praised.
“It’s a positive experience that supports their self esteem,” she said.
Jennette DiMascio, whose 9-year-old son attends Spring Grove, said her son enjoyed competing with and against students from other schools.
“Some of these students sometimes feel that they can’t compete, but this lets them compete and feel like a winner every time,” she said.
San Benito County Superintendent Mike Sanchez presented a participant plaque to representatives of Gilroy High, acknowledging that the Mustangs had more participants than the Balers – a designation San Benito received last year.
“They told me it was definitely a competition between Hollister and Gilroy,” he said. “This year it’s my pleasure to hand it over.”
Gilroy High School Principal Dr. Marco Sanchez thanked participants and the crowd during his opening remarks, noting that he was “grateful for the support from the Gilroy and Hollister participants.”
A moment of silence was observed for two Life Skills students who recently passed away, and then the Games got under way.
Fans cheered every softball toss or javelin throw, drawing huge smiles from the athletes, all of whom received participation medals at the end of the day.
De Leon, one of the event founders, noted how many smiling faces could be seen during the competition.
“It’s great to see the support from the community and the staff as well as peer helpers,” she said.
Sam Sauer of Gilroy High’s Life Skills program said the rotation between Gilroy and San Benito High will help form a bond between the traditional athletic rivals.
“Our vision by us taking the reins this year is to have more a community connection with San Benito High School,” he said, noting that a Life Skills prom for the two schools was held in Hollister this year and will rotate to Gilroy next year.
The event also showcased the generosity of local families and businesses whose donations helped support the event.
“Without their help this wouldn’t have been possible,” he said.
• Gilroy Assistance League: Donated a $1,000 grant
• Earthbound Farms: Donated apples and carrots for lunches
• Silicon Valley Health Trust: Donated grant to San Benito High
• MC Electric: Donated more than $1,000
• Windmill Market, Chang So: Donated 500 hot dogs and buns
• Uesugi Farms: Donated strawberries
• Viola Carr: Donated stay at Capitola beach house for raffle prize
• FritoLay: Donated chips for lunches
• GHS Advanced Sports Medicine class: Donated cases of water