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Text by Steve Breazeale, Photos by Allison Jarrell

Some 230 special education student-athletes were given an Olympic-style welcome this morning at Dana Hills High School as part of the Capistrano Unified School District’s Special Olympics of Orange County spring games.

Athletes from San Clemente High School, Dana Hills, Marco Forster Middle School, Tesoro High, Newhart Middle School and Niguel Hills Middle School filled the Dana Hills gym for the opening ceremonies. When the athletes entered the gym, 250 student, faculty and parent volunteers were there to greet them and cheer them on as they prepared for the day’s Olympic-style events.

But before the day’s athletic events could begin, everyone had to get loose. A dance party erupted in the gym, with athletes, student volunteers and parents rocking out to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.”

The athletes then took the field at Dolphins Stadium and participated in the 100-meter dash, 25-meter wheelchair race, long jump, softball toss and standing long jump. There were also hula hoop contests and obstacle courses set up for the athletes.

Just over one month ago, CUSD did not have a home venue for the event and it was in danger of being canceled. Special Olympics Orange County reached out to Dana Hills High School and the two parties agreed the school would be a great venue for the games. In four short weeks, Dana Hills faculty and student government rallied to pull it off.

In order for the event to take place, Special Olympics Orange County mandates that each athlete have their own personal volunteer. All 100 members of the associated student union at Dana Hills pledged to volunteer, along with the entire Dolphins football program. Once word spread around campus, even more students became eager to sign up.

“It was really positive. I had random kids that I had never seen or talked to before come up to me and ask to participate in this,” Dana Hills senior and ASU member Claire O’Melveny said. “All the kids on campus are really excited to see the outcome.”

DHHS co-activities director Brittany Casey said the event showcased the strong relationship between CUSD’s Structured Teaching, Educationally-based, Promoting Independence and Student-Centered Instruction (STEPS) program for students with special needs and campuses throughout the district.

“It’s an experience that changes the lives of the participants and the people who are volunteering,” Casey said. “It’s that bond and respect for each other and that camaraderie and the family atmosphere … To be able to spread that through CUSD is really important to all of us.”

Casey said Dana Hills is open to becoming a permanent host venue for the spring games.

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