South Carolina student-athletes recently took a break from their sports and are preparing for exams to participate in the third annual Gamecock Games Community Service Event which pairs the Gamecocks with local children with special needs. The event was held at the Miracle League Field in Columbia on April 23.
“This has been our highest attended event in our twelve years of existence,” said Dawn Darby, Executive Director and co-founder of The Therapy Place, which provides therapy for children with special needs and provides family support services. “We let some of the siblings of the kids play as well. The kids look forward to it every year. We do this because the kids that we serve are not able to participate in recreation sports or activities like other kids can.
“There are smiles on their faces, and they feel like they’re participating in sports just like any other child would. What’s really cool is that the student-athletes have just as big of a smile on their faces as well. We all leave feeling very fulfilled from the event.”
The Gamecocks and the children play a variety of adaptive games and sports. The event was hosted by The Therapy Place, Special Olympics-Columbia, South Carolina Student-Athlete Development, and the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.
“Our kids really need this adaptive environment,” Darby said. “We adapt the toys, the sports, and the games so that they’re wheelchair accessible and able for all of our kids to participate. It’s an event where they know that other kids like them will be attending, and they don’t have to worry about if they’re going to feel awkward or if they won’t be able to participate. Their parents know they’re going to be accepted and that their kids will be participating and having a good time.”
“Seeing their positivity and happiness makes me see life differently.”
Nearly one hundred student-athletes from a wide variety of sports participated in the event.
“I had heard from my older teammates how much fun they had doing it, so that made me want to be a part of it,” said Presley Wright, a freshman on the beach volleyball team, who is studying business. “I had participated in something like this in high school, and I loved it. The best part was getting to see all the kids smile. When we were all lined up and getting paired with the kids, it was such a sight to see with them just lighting up and running straight to the playground to play with everyone. The excitement that they had and the excitement that all the student-athletes had was really cool.
“We played soccer, went on the playground, played basketball, and hit balls off the tee for tee ball. We blew up balloons and the kids started drawing on them. I had so much fun, and I think both of the little boys I was with had the time of their lives.”
“I grew up being a swim coach for our summer league programs, and I love working with kids,” said sophomore swimmer Darby Gailbraith, who is studying retail management. “We had a few special needs kids in that, and they were always so much fun to be around. When I heard about this, I thought it would be a great opportunity. The best part of it was seeing how happy the kids are over the simplest of things, such as making a shot in basketball. Seeing their positivity and happiness makes me see life differently. I will definitely do it again next year.”
“I was a part of it last year, too, and there were a lot of teammates who told me how good of an experience it was,” said Chase Teal, a sophomore on the Beach Volleyball team, who is a nursing major. “I loved it last year and had an amazing experience again this year. Seeing the kids smile was amazing. I had a little boy this year with one of my teammates. He was so joyful to be out there playing with us. He kept running up to us and giving us hugs. The best part is just seeing the joy on the kids’ faces.
“It is a very stressful time leading into our conference tournament and leading up to finals, but I wanted a break from all of that. I wanted to have a few hours where I wasn’t worried about school and having to worry about volleyball. It was a good break from life for a little bit. I’ll do it again next year; one hundred percent!”
At the end of the day, the student-athletes and the participating children made some new friends and were looking forward to doing it again.
“As soon as it’s over, everyone says they want to register for next year,” Darby said. “We get so many emails from the parents of the kids the next day. One child had his t-shirt autographed, and he slept in it because he didn’t want to take it off. Everyone has a great time.”