Kiwanis special games: A time to celebrate acceptance and kindness

Over 1000 special needs students from 60 schools across Santa Clara County are scattered around the West Valley College track at the Kiwanis Special Games, which took place on May 17, 2019. The event was organized by Special Games Club 1234, a branch of the international service club Kiwanis. Students ranging from first to twelfth grade participated in 18 field-day style events tailored to fit their physical limitations and were assisted by coaches, teachers, schoolmates, caregivers and other volunteers. The purpose of the event is to give students with special needs and their families a place where they can enjoy being around others with similar conditions and have a good time.

“Every year, the families look forward to this event, because there really isn’t anything else like it; they can bring their children, have a good time and meet up year after year,” said Nancy Whitman, Public Relations Manager and Board Member of Special Games Club 1234. “The event has its own little community of families that build friendships and give each other support.”

The games first took place in 1979, and were organized by two adaptive PE teachers and Walter Kohnert, a Los Altos member of Kiwanis. Their goal was to create an event where students with special needs who don’t qualify for the Special Olympics could participate in athletics and connect with other special needs students. Although the purpose and style of the event have remained constant for 41 years, it has grown tremendously in size. The number of participants increased by about 100 from 2018 to 2019. Moreover, only one school participated in the 1979 Kiwanis Special Games compared to the 60 schools that attended this year.

At the beginning of every year’s event, students represent their schools in a grand parade, similar to the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Each school’s participants hold up a banner as they proudly make their way around the stadium, and they are personally welcomed by the organizers when walking past them.

“Everybody always has an amazing time watching all the schools line up,” Whitman said. “It’s a very special parade because it’s so neat to see everyone really appreciating life.”

After the parade, students participate in games such as the 100 yard dash, Nerf archery, frisbee throw and various obstacle courses. The activities are laid out on a track and students are free to choose which one they want to participate in. However, athletes mainly compete against others with similar abilities and are awarded ribbons based on their performance. In addition to a participation ribbon and t-shirt, every contestant receives at least one of four ribbons: first place, second place, third place or best effort.

Twenty Lynbrook Academy Community and Transition (ACT) students attended the Kiwanis Special Games and were accompanied by four volunteers from Lynbrook Viking Buddies club. The volunteers assisted Lynbrook students with their activities, whether this meant holding an athlete’s hand through an obstacle course or tossing a bean bag at the student’s signal.

“Encouraging [the ACT students] to play these games and then seeing the joy on their faces when they accomplish a task is super rewarding,” said junior and Viking Buddies Vice President Shubhra Dubey.

It was Lynbrook’s tenth year participating in the Kiwanis Special Games. However, it was only the second year where preparation took place in the Lynbrook ACT students’ PE Inclusive class, which began in the 2017-18 school year. About three months prior to the games, ACT students practiced competition activities, such as an obstacle course, on block days in PE.

“A lot of [the ACT students] became more comfortable running through the course because not all of them are used to running or doing the snazzy obstacles,” said junior and Viking Buddies intern Julie Lee. “Practicing the course also really allowed them to be comfortable interacting with the volunteers as the volunteers would guide them through the course at the event.”

This year was particularly special because it was the first time that Lynbrook took a student in a wheelchair and because Lynbrook ACT students had more fun spending time with old friends from other schools that they had met at previous years’ games than in past years. Seeing, competing with and creating friendships with others like themselves fostered a community environment among the students and helped build their confidence.  

“Knowing that there are opportunities for [the ACT students] to participate and do well in gives them a confidence boost,” said Viking Buddies adviser and ACT teacher Garry DeGuzman. “It’s awesome to see the pride on their faces after they’ve competed.”

For example, ACT sophomore Olivia Lee ran for the first time at the ACT events. Julie Lee was amazed at this because she had always seen Olivia walking slowly prior to event.

“It was really nice to see [Olivia] develop and learn from the people around her,” said Julie Lee.

The ACT students look forward to the Kiwanis Special Games every year, as they get a chance to participate in exciting athletic events with other athletes that have similar limitations. The games make every student feel special and foster a community of kindness, diversity and acceptance.