Tricia Koechig is one of many students who loves to participate in Washington Center Challenge Day. “It’s one of my favorite days of the year,” said the junior elementary education major. Today, Koechig has the opportunity to participate in this event once again.

Every year, BJU’s School of Education and Athletic Department team up with Washington Center and Greenville County Recreation District to host Washington Center Challenge Day on the BJU campus. Washington Center, a Greenville County public school that serves children and young people with moderate to severe mental disabilities, brings more than 100 students to BJU each fall to participate in a variety of athletic events, including foot races and basketball shooting competitions.

As the children arrive on campus today, each is assigned to the care of individual students, who help them participate in their sporting events for the day, but often the university students receive as much, if not more, from this relationship as the children do. “Watching my athlete smile makes the day priceless,” said senior elementary education major Esther Lapointe.

Koechig added she enjoyed working one-on-one with her student last year and noted his excitement and enthusiasm. “He was always happy, always smiling,” she said.

Senior elementary education major Alyssa Mansell enjoys seeing the children achieve things that are seemingly difficult tasks for them, and she said she’s realized that being able to run and engage in other physical activity is something often taken for granted.

BJU students start preparing for this special occasion the night before, blowing up balloons, decorating the Davis Field House and making sure that everything is in order for the big day.

The event begins with a grand parade and torch lighting ceremony, often the favorite event of the day for participating students. The children all march in while the band plays, and the lighting of the torch officially starts the day’s activities.

“Everybody’s waving, everybody’s clapping in the stands and you’re waving back,” said Mansell. “It’s just really thrilling.”

Dr. Brian Carruthers, dean of the School of Education, said he enjoys watching the children participate in the grand parade. “This is big stuff,” he said.

For many of the students involved in the Washington Center Challenge Day, working with special needs children is a new experience. Sophomore health, fitness and recreation major Abigail Garbutt said she was a little apprehensive at first about working with special needs children. “I was really scared,” she said, “but coming away from [the day], I felt a lot more confident in the fact that I could work with these kids.”

Carruthers said the reason for hosting this event is both to reach out to the community and to provide opportunities for the students.

“It’s something we look forward to each year,” he said.  “It’s just a great opportunity for our students.”

All students majoring in education, communication disorders or health, fitness and recreation are excused from classes for the day, not only to work with the children who come, but also to expand their horizons in the area of working with special needs children.

Students often look back on Washington Center Challenge Day as a life-changing experience. “Our students always come away very excited about having had that opportunity just to reach out,” Carruthers said.