The track at Riverview Middle School was awash in a sea of bright blue shirts Thursday as the 2013 Dawson County Special Olympics got under way.
"We are part of a group called Connectability that's a partnership between Lumpkin and Dawson counties," said Tricia Owenby, a special education teacher at Riverview and the school's Special Olympics coordinator.
"We're trying to alternate venues. Last year we did it in Lumpkin County, so this year we held it in Dawson. This is the first time it's ever been held here."
By holding the games in Dawson, Owenby hopes the community will become more involved with and aware of special needs children.
"This is the first time I've seen the community this involved in special needs events," she said. "Judging by the turnout today, I think we were successful."
As part of the initiative, Riverview invited Dawson County High School students to volunteer and work as "special partners" for the athletes.
"I've wanted to be an elementary school teacher for a while and I've thought about going into special education, so I thought this would be a great way to spend my day," said Dawson County senior Kacie Bearden. "I get to hang out with the kids and, at the same time, figure out if this is something I want to go into or not."
Bearden's partner, athlete Kesha Ingram, won two medals Thursday - a silver in the 25 x 50 walk-run competition and a bronze in soccer kick.
"I was excited to compete and win medals," Ingram said.
Another Dawson County senior, Mitchell Putnam, said he volunteered to "just help out in any way" he could.
"I was looking for an opportunity to help out in the community and volunteer. By doing this, I get to meet new people and work with the kids."
Owenby said the Dawson County school system's special education department is working hard to ensure this isn't an isolated event.
"We want to keep this up. This is a year-round drive, not just a one-time event," she said. "We want to keep this going."
Owenby went on to note that special needs athletes "can't participate in everyday sports" so "this is one way for them to find an outlet."
However, competing is secondary to awareness and involvement.
"The focus is on the kids," she said. "We just want to get the community more involved and more aware of them."