BLOOMINGTON — As hundreds of children laughed and high-fived each other, Alex Boe was right there to share in their delight.
"Seeing them have a whole lot of fun, it's kind of the best thing ever," said Boe as he helped a group of children compete in a relay at the Central Catholic High School gym. "All of them are super happy and that makes all of us happy, too. This is a whole lot of fun."
He was among 90 CCHS seniors who spent their last day of school Friday volunteering to help about 350 children involved in the Special Olympics Young Athletes program at three McLean County Unit 5's Parkside, Sugar Creek and Brigham elementary schools.
The program is open to children, ages 2 to 7, with and without intellectual disabilities. They celebrated their successes and demonstrated the skills they learned throughout the year, said Kathleen O’Connell, who provides Unit 5's physical education programming for students with disabilities. She also coordinates the Young Athletes program.
After an opening ceremony, the Young Athletes, some with the help of peer coaches, participated in various physical activities, including jumping, running relays and throwing and hitting balls.
"They are showing off to the community their fine motor skills that they have learned all year long," said Michele Evans, communications director for Special Olympics Illinois.
"All children, ages 2 to 7, need to learn those skills, whether they go into sports through a community recreation program or come into Special Olympics," she added. "It's a program to integrate children with or without disabilities so they can become friendly with each other. It's a way to build some inclusion within the community."
In Unit 5, Young Athletes also are partnered with Parkside fifth-graders to give them more individual attention, O'Connell said. "It also gives the fifth-graders a responsibility that they take, I think, very seriously."
Crystal Jarvis of Normal came to watch her 11-year-old son, Joe, who volunteered to mentor a 6-year-old boy who uses a walker.
"It makes me really proud," she said. "I think the program has really helped him and a lot of other kids understand that they don't have to be afraid, that there is really nothing different about them and that it's a fun thing to do."
Last year, CCHS seniors named Special Olympics Illinois as their charity of choice, raising $16,775 for the organization. The school has continued to be supportive this year, even though the senior class selected another charity, said CCHS Associate Principal Sean Foster, who next year replaces retiring Principal Joy Allen.
"I think our students get more out of it than we give," he said. "One of the things we love about hosting this event here is it exposes our students to students they wouldn't have the opportunity to meet. And our hope is our students will continue to serve and volunteer in this capacity in the future."