As the buses pull onto campus Friday morning, bringing more than 100 special needs children and young adults aged 5 to 21, an adventure for both these Washington Center student athletes and BJU students will begin.
This special event, known as Washington Center Day, is an annual Special Olympics day hosted by Greenville County Recreation and has been held at BJU for more than 25 years.
Students majoring in education, communication disorders, and health, fitness and recreation participate in making the event happen. Students are assigned to set up and tear down equipment, work at different stations or accompany individual special needs students throughout the day.
Inside the gym, the Washington Center students challenge themselves to accomplish skills they have been training for over the past eight weeks. In Olympic Town, along the outside track, the special needs students play games, have their faces painted, play musical instruments or simply soak up the different sights and sounds surrounding them.
Becca Hayes, a junior elementary education major who has worked at Washington Center Day for the past two years, said her favorite part of the day is walking with the athletes around Olympic Town as they interact with the different games and activities. “It’s just fun watching them light up and seeing them have fun,” Becca said.
The event opens in the gym with the Parade of Athletes. The Concert Band, under the direction of Dr. Bruce Cox, plays inspiring music as the student athletes enter the gym, which is filled with cheering fans. This year the opening ceremony will be emceed by WYFF-4 anchor Geoff Hart, followed by Dr. Stephen Jones greeting the visitors and getting the event underway with an opening prayer.
Several BJU faculty and staff work behind the scenes to prepare for Washington Center Day, but students also have a strategic role in the event. Miss Jane Smith, liaison between Greenville Rec and the BJU School of Education, said the BJU students work directly with the Greenville Rec staff, specifically BJU graduate Randy Murr and his assistant, Lara Ceisel, in order to make the day a success.
Junior English education major Stephanie Ware has participated in Washington Center Day since 2010, working with students who struggle with mobility. “The event opened my eyes up to special education and the need to help these kids have the best education that they can,” Stephanie said. Working with these students also helped Stephanie see how rewarding it is to help people with special needs.
Senior math education major Jon Edwards has participated in Washington Center Day for three years. Though each year he has spent the day accompanying an athlete, each of the students has come with different abilities and disabilities. Jon said this event helps the students achieve their goals and have fun. “We need to help these people,” he said. “God made them for a purpose, and God is perfect in all His plans.” Jon said BJU students should come to the event realizing the student athletes are normal and need to be accepted as such.
Washington Center Day may intimidate some BJU students who have never worked with people with special needs. Mark Sherwin, a junior math education major, said he was intimidated when he first started working at WCD his freshman year. However, after two years of experience, he suggests that BJU students go all out and make the day enjoyable for the special needs students.
To help the Washington Center students have a memorable day, junior special education major Lindsay Cummings said to interact with them as much as possible and treat them as a younger brother or sister.
“Don’t come at them scared,” she said. Rather, Lindsay said she comes to this special day with the mentality that these children are created by God and need to be challenged beyond stereotypical expectations.
“Those you think cannot … can!” is Washington Center’s motto, and it captures the essence of Washington Center Day. During this special day, Washington Center student athletes and BJU students are challenged to try new, difficult and perhaps scary things. But just as the motto suggests, what may seem beyond reach may be right out front for the taking.