The campus of Loyola Marymount University (LMU) in Westchester, decorated for a special day with colorful balloons and lively music, was the backdrop for an afternoon of spirited games and friendship for special-needs athletes and a large crowd Saturday, April 26th.
More than 1,000 athletes participated in the 31st Special Games, which culminated in the last of the Olympic-style games and a closing ceremony on “Big Day,” the last of three Saturday activities in April for physically- and mentally-challenged individuals.
The theme of this year’s Games was “We Go Together.”
Michael Giordano, a senior at LMU, was one of the volunteer team leaders who worked long hours to help make the event possible. He was inspired two years ago when he heard about the event through the Crimson Circle, a student community service group on campus.
“Every year, [the Games] have a different flavor because there are different organizers making everything happen, but it has largely the same undercurrent of volunteer service and fun for the athletes,” said Giordano, a history major. “The athletes really get a kick out of Big Day and so do we.”
The athletes were each paired with a student/coach who assisted them throughout the games, providing encouragement, water and coaching.
A parade of students and the participants kicked off the games before the festivities of Big Day. An Olympic-style torch was carried by two of the athletes, reminiscent of the Summer Olympic Games.
Prior to the start of Big Day, Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose district includes Westchester, addressed the students and athletes, as did Father Michael Engh, dean of the LMU Bellarman School of Liberal Arts.
Engh, like Giordano, said that the commitment to being involved with efforts like the special games was a part of the university’s larger mission of community involvement and social interaction with diverse groups of people.
“This is nothing new,” said the dean, as music blared in the background. “This is part of out tradition here, and we try to be a part of the community and contribute to the community for many, many years.”
A number of local schools, including the John Adams Middle School National Juniors Honors Society, volunteered their time to be a part of the activities.
Vera Kwan, director of the Special Games, gave credit to the student committee that assisted her in structuring the activities. The event is run exclusively by LMU students, with the university taking care of certain financial commitments.
“Each group of students brings their own special talent, and because of their creativity, it takes a slightly different tone and development,” Engh explained.
Each committee member was assigned a specific role, such as recruiting the athletes, the coaches and team leaders.
“My job was scheduling, getting the guest speakers, talking to vendors and helping other committee members in any way that I can,” Kwan said.
Kwan, a senior at LMU who is majoring in business administration, began planning for this year’s Special Games with her committee last fall. Last year, she was in charge of recruiting the athletes and this year moved up to coordinating the entire event.
“It was pretty much what I expected,” she replied when asked if she had anticipated the kind of workload that the director of the Games would have. “I think that I actually went overboard in some cases.”
Christine Nangle, an LMU alumna who works in the university’s communications department, said that participating in “Big Day” brought back memories of her time as a student, when she first volunteered to serve as a mentor for a special needs athlete during the Special Games.
“It’s a really neat activity where it brings the community together,” said Nangle. “It’s a great way for students to interact with people who are mentally and physically challenged and deepens the relationship between them and to have an enjoyable time at the same time.”
The athletes participated in events such as the milk bottle toss, volleyball, bingo, basketball, T-ball, soccer, and the football toss. This year, unlike past years, there was a petting zoo, along with various arts and crafts.
Donna Davis was one of the special-needs athletes who carried the torch at the beginning of “Big Day.” She said the “Memory Game” was one of her favorite activities, and she enjoyed making new friends at the event.
“I found two new friends here, and plus, you get to dance,” said Davis, who was accompanied by Ethan Smith, a freshman who is majoring in engineering.
“I love Donna. She’s a lot of fun,” he said as they exchanged hugs. “She’s a good athlete and a good dancer.”
Davis plans on coming back next year.
“I love to participate in the Special Games, and I want Ethan to be my coach,” she said.
Nangle and Kwan reiterated that the Special Games mean almost as much to those who volunteer as those who take part in them, and the development of community spirit is a big part of the university’s mission.
“Social justice and community is a big part of what LMU is all about,” said Kwan. “We have a system here where we grow a whole person. It’s not just about learning at school; it’s also about learning that we have a responsibility to society to help out as much as we can.”
“One of LMU’s mission statements is the service of faith and the promotion of justice and the development of the whole people,” Nangle added. “This kind of activity shows that LMU is committed and its students are committed to helping with social justice and learning from that.”
The university plans to host the Special Games again next year.