Children and Youth

Gifted and talented athletes

Nearly 400 student-athletes participate in annual Gifted Games event at San Benito High School

The Andy Hardin Stadium bleachers were packed for the opening ceremony parade of the 10th annual Gifted Games Friday, May 15 at San Benito High School. Parents, teachers and students cheered on 380 special needs athletes from Hollister, San Benito, Aromas and Gilroy Unified School districts as they participated in various Olympics-style events.

What originally began with 30 Life Skills students from SBHS has become a community-wide celebration of student athletes from around the area. In its 10th year, the Gifted Games offers students with disabilities the chance to compete in an organized and supportive atmosphere, while promoting a healthy lifestyle. Competitive events included a one-mile run, wheelchair races, 50- and 100-yard dashes and various field events such as the long jump and softball throw.

The Games, which organizer Tania Sauer said wouldn’t happen without the assistance of 130 high school student volunteers, bring out confidence and pride in those participating. Students who volunteer to help also share in the camaraderie.

“It’s about making people feel good,” said volunteer Jade Sanchez, a sophomore at SBHS. “I feel like everyone deserves to feel special.”

The SBHS band led the athletes onto the track amongst cheers from the crowd, and events began following the Pledge of Allegiance, the National Anthem and a brief welcome by Todd Dearden, SBHS principal. The one-mile run started the competitive events, which were announced by retired San Benito County Superintendent Mike Sanchez, known as “The Voice of the Balers.”

For many of the athletes, the Games are not only an opportunity to showcase their abilities, but also an occasion to meet and mingle with other special needs students. While the crowd cheered from one side of the stadium, tents with representatives from each participating school lined the opposite side.

“This is a great event to help with students’ social skills, not just physical fitness,” said Minvie Cipriano, a teacher at Ladd Lane Elementary School. “They’re having fun with students from other schools and it’s OK if they ‘lose.’”

Following the field events, the co-ed Baler Gifted Cheer Team took center stage, performing on the field with pom-poms and synchronized dance moves. Members of the crowd, including SBHS students on break, sang along to Taylor Swift and Rihanna songs, while cheering and applauding the team.

An athlete who participated in nearly every event—including the mile run, softball throw and turbo jav throw—was 10-year-old Richard Stevenson, a student at R.O. Hardin Elementary School. Of all the events, he said his favorite was the 50-yard dash, where he won the medal that hung around his neck.

“We’ve come out the past three or four years,” said David Stevenson, Richard’s dad. “Bringing out high school kids and building that connection between kids in different circles is really special. And for the kids come out and cheer them on, having that cooperation between everyone is great.”

Many of the student athletes, who ranged from preschool to high school age, beamed after completing events and brought smiles to those in attendance as well. Shari Stevenson, mom of athlete Richard, said the students have huge obstacles to overcome—and overcome them with great attitudes.

“It’s so rewarding to see the kids finish the events,” she said. “The best part is seeing how they glow and how happy they are. These are opportunities not often afforded to them, and things we take for granted.”

Bus driver Leila Swanson was Grand Marshal of the Games and helped several cheerleaders present medals to the athletes at the finish line following the final events—the 50- and 100-yard dashes.

Sauer said she could not have organized the competition without the assistance of the students, volunteers, teachers and the support of SBHS and the participating schools: Ladd Lane, R.O. Hardin, Spring Grove, Sunnyslope, Cerra Vista, Aromas, Antonio Del Buono, El Roble, Las Animas and Luigi Aprea elementary schools; the Early Childhood Education Center; Marguerite Maze, Rancho San Justo, Brownell, Solarsano and South Valley middle schools; the Hollister Dual Language Academy; Chamberlains; Social Vocational Services; and San Benito, Gilroy and Christopher high schools.

“It was another successful Gifted Games,” she said. “Nearly 400 athletes and generous communities contributed to putting smiles on so many faces.”

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Andrea "Andi" Joseph is a freelance editor, writer and photographer with a journalism degree from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. She was the Lifestyles Editor for the Hollister Free Lance, Gilroy Dispatch and Morgan Hill Times for nearly 11 years, and has also worked for the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian and the Arroyo Grande Times-Press-Recorder. Andi enjoys hiking, traveling and exploring with her dog, Bailey.