The scene for the most part resembled any other track and field meet: athletes on the field, spectators in the stands, an announcer providing the information.
There were a few differences though. The athletes didn’t compete alone. They almost all ran with an older “buddy” by their side. Some competitors had two buddies.
At the finish line, along with a red tape, there were “receivers,” adults whose job it was to cheer on the athletes, encourage them to finish and wait for them to arrive.
After each race, athletes, no matter what place they finished, walked over to the podium where they all stood on one of the three places and received medals and posed for pictures.
The smiles were too numerous to count and the joy in the adult volunteers showed in their smiles, encouraging yells and congratulatory hugs.
“Everyone can be a hero, and it’s time for these kids,” event organizer Cinny Pike said. “This is their day to be heroes, to be champions.”
Ms. Pike, a Henderson ISD life skills teacher, along with her school district and other community and various school district volunteers put on the Sixth Annual Sarah Murphy Invitational Field Day at Henderson ISD’s Lion Stadium on Friday.
The track and field event is for students with special needs from nine East Texas school districts.
About 250 students from elementary to high school age participated, each with varying degrees of mental and/or physical disabilities.
Participating school districts were: Henderson, Whitehouse, Arp, Laneville, Carlisle, Tatum, West Rusk, Troup and Overton.
Events included the 50-meter and 100-meter dashes, the 100-meter adapted hurdles (two-by-fours were placed in the lanes for the students to jump over), soccer kick, softball throw and more. Students received medals for participating in the track events and ribbons for the field events.
There also were activity booths where they could draw, get their faces painted, play games and more.
“They wait for this all year long, and they have so much fun,” said Staci Curry, a life skills teacher at Henderson ISD’s Wylie Elementary School.
But it isn’t just the students who enjoy it.
“For teachers, it means that we finally get to see our kids compete on level ground with their peers in an athletic way,” she said.
Wylie Elementary School second-grader Cason Weatherton, 8, participated in the field day. Cason was born without his right leg, but he doesn’t let that stop him from running and playing like other kids.
On Friday, he ran in several events using his left leg and a pair of crutches. He’s figured out how to run just as fast — and sometimes faster — than his peers with the crutches.
Neairih Maxwell, 8, a Wylie Elementary School second-grader, proudly displayed her race medal to those who would look at it.
“I like to win,” she said of her favorite part of the day.
Students participated in more ways than just the athletic events. They also were part of the program’s athlete parade and opening ceremonies.
Donovan Terrell, 13, a Carlisle ISD seventh-grader, sang the national anthem for the program.
Carlisle ISD life skills teacher Tonya Cates said although he sang at last year’s field day and practiced for his big day this year, he added some dramatic flair for the actual performance.
“His voice is changing, but it’s really funny because he kind of embellished today,” Ms. Cates said, adding that he often asks his teachers whether his performances make them cry.
In the audience, family members cheered on their participants.
Donna Huckins, 66, of Carlisle, attended to watch her grandson, Donovan, whom she is raising, participate. Donovan’s great-grandmother, Jean Moye, 85, who is retired, and his cousin, Brad Taylor, a Carlisle senior, also attended. Ms. Huckins, who works as director of Henderson Interchurch Ministries and The Salvation Army, said the excitement level for him his huge.
“He talks nonstop about it for two months,” she said.
Donavan has been blind since he was seven weeks old and is autistic, she said. But he has a talent for music.
“He can sing you every Beach Boys song …” she said. “He loves the oldies.”
Cheryl Smith, 36, a stay-at-home mom, came with three of her children to watch her 9-year-old, Katie Eddins, a West Rusk third-grader, compete.
Last year, “she wouldn’t take off the medals for like four days …” Ms. Smith said. “It’s nice to see these kids participate like the rest.”
Ms. Pike said Henderson ISD started the event because it wasn’t economically feasible for a lot of the area schools to go to Lufkin for the Special Olympics. So the district decided to have its own and invite other districts.
The first year, it was affiliated with the Special Olympics, but starting in the second year, organizers made their own event and renamed it the Sarah Murphy Field Day to honor the Henderson ISD graduate who was known and loved by all in the community and had passed away in her 30s.
“You could just feel it in the community when she passed away, the loss,” Ms. Pike said.
Ms. Murphy’s parents, Linda and Jack Murphy, have been active volunteers at the event since the first one, Ms. Pike said.
Linda Murphy, 73, who works for Rusk County Special Education, said Sarah, who had learning disabilities, came into their family when she was 5 and they later adopted her. She loved the Special Olympics and even went to the statewide competition. The 1-mile race walk was her specialty, and few people could beat her in that event, Mrs. Murphy said.
“Everybody loved her,” she said. “She was a hard worker.”
She said the family was overwhelmed and humbled the school district would name the event after Sarah.
Ms. Pike thanked the community for its financial support and the many volunteers and school district employees for helping out.
“I am so blessed to be a part of Henderson ISD and to be a part of these children’s lives …” Ms. Pike said. “Every student here is an inspiration to me. Just to see them smile and be a champion. It’s inspiring to me.”