Dawson County Special Olympics took more than 50 participants to compete in the Connect Ability local games last week at Lumpkin County High School.
Special Olympics, which focus on providing athletic training and competition for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, is mostly run through the work of volunteers. The event had more than 20 student volunteers from the high school and middle schools.
"All the kids were excited to be here," said Tricia Owenby, Dawson County Special Olympics coordinator. "We had a good turn-out and lots of kids helping and rooting [participants] on. It seems everybody had a really good time."
Dawsonville resident Ed Rajczak agrees and said that the event meant a lot to his son Trent Rajczak, who is an eighth grader at Riverview Middle School.
"Special Olympics offers these kids a sense of pride. Do you see how excited they get? The emotion people think just isn't there is really there. Just because a lot of them can't talk or this or that, you think they don't understand or they don't get it, but they do get it," he said.
Trent Rajczak, who competed and won third place in the tennis ball throw, is diagnosed with autism, a developmental disorder affecting his social and communication skills.
Ed Rajczak said he has seen a change in his son since he got involved in the Special Olympics more than six years ago.
"He has especially grown socially. He has outbursts where he can become aggressive, but bringing him today he was fabulous all day. It's really amazing. He was so excited," he said.
Dawsonville resident Annetta Nichols thinks Special Olympics offers self-confidence to her 8-year-old son Jacob.
"I think these events are great for him because they help him feel like he is worth something and what he does matters. It's just to make him feel good about himself," she said.
Owenby said this is what Special Olympics, a national organization, is all about, and that is what inspired her to take the reins for Dawson County's branch early last year.
According to school officials, Owenby has been instrumental in helping increase involvement from only two participants in 2011 to 38 participants and attendees in the 2012 winter games. Last week's event in Lumpkin was one of the biggest events yet.
Dawson County Special Education Director Susan Rutherford said one reason more students are participating in Special Olympics is that Owenby arranged for free physicals to be offered at area schools.
The Special Olympics require participants to have physicals done before competing and Owenby recognized students were having a difficult time fulfilling this preliminary step.
More students were able to participate after local doctors volunteered to come to schools and give the children physicals with parental permission.
When looking to the future, Owenby is excited to invest more time in kick starting the "Young Athletes" program, an innovative sports play program for children age two to seven with intellectual disabilities that is designed to introduce them to the world of sports prior to Special Olympics eligibility.
Last week's local games were the first event young athletes participated in. According to Owenby, 15 four-to-seven-year-olds attended and competed