YARMOUTH — A record number of kids participated in this year’s Special Olympics event in Yarmouth.

Frank Harrison Middle School hosted its fourth Young Athletes Festival with Special Olympics Maine on May 13. The event, which is run by the entire eighth-grade class of 110 students, drew more participants with special needs than ever before.

“It’s neat that it keeps growing,” said Lisa Bird, who is director of public relations and youth initiatives for Special Olympics Maine. “We had 20 kids our first year. It’s exciting to see it taking off.”

This year, Bird said more than 75 kids ages 2-10 participated in the event, compared to 50 participants last year. The athletes on Friday spent two hours doing various sports exercises and physical activities to help them acquire new skills.

The annual event is for kids from all over the state with intellectual disabilities and autism. This year for the first time, children in wheelchairs were included.

“We were concerned people thought they couldn’t come, so we were excited to have so many kids who use wheelchairs this year,” Bird said.

The eighth-graders, who ran all of the events and activities, said the day meant as much to them as it did to the kids.

“It’s been one of the most rewarding and enriching experiences of my life,” Connor Tull said.

Being able to help the kids learn new skills while having fun was important to the eighth-graders.

“Today’s been really great because we’ve been able to help a lot of kids do things they normally wouldn’t get to do,” Riley Anderson said.

Natalia Powers said she likes knowing her class is making an impact on the other kids’ lives.

“I just love working with kids and seeing how much fun they’re having,” she said. “Seeing them smile makes my day.”

According to Anderson, the smiles didn’t come easy early in the day, but the younger children quickly warmed to the middle-schoolers.

“I think the best part has been seeing kids open up,” he said. “There was one kid who was really shy when he got here, but then he started doing the activities and really opened up.”

One of the participants, 9-year-old Tommy Allen, of Monmouth, said he enjoyed the day very much.

“I’m having a lot of fun,” he said. “I like when we bounced the balls.”

Joan Adler,  assistant principal at Frank Harrison Middle School, said she’s proud of the students and what they accomplish with the young athletes’ event.

“We’re so impressed with them and what they bring to our school community as role models,” Adler said. “They’re so compassionate and tend to each kid to make sure they’re having fun.”

In addition to the event being run by students, it was also started by one. Yarmouth High School senior Meredith Hawkins began the event as a middle school project when she was in eighth grade.

Hawkins has attended the event each year to oversee things and help out where she can. She’ll be away at college next year, and is unsure if she’ll be able to come back and attend, but was happy to know the school will continue the event.

“It definitely makes me really happy to know it’ll continue on, and to know it’s part of the school system is huge,” she said.

Hawkins said while she’s sad to be leaving, she knows the event will continue to thrive.

“It’s a little bittersweet for me because this is the biggest group of kids we’ve had so far,” she said. “It’s a good note to leave on.”

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

A participant tossing a bean bag at the fourth annual Special Olympics Young Athletes Festival at Frank Harrison Middle School in Yarmouth on May 13 is cheered on by eighth-graders Adriana Whitlock and Chris Koskinen.

Ryan Lane, 10, of Benton, plays Duck, Duck, Goose with a group of Yarmouth eighth-graders at a May 13 Special Olympics event at Frank Harrison Middle School.

Will Turner, 5, of Lewiston, jumps through a hoop held by eighth-grader Michael McNeil at the annual Special Olympics event May 13 at Frank Harrison Middle School in Yarmouth.

Michael Baglieri, an EMT with Yarmouth Fire/Rescue, demonstrates what goes on inside an ambulance during Friday’s Special Olympics event at Frank Harrison Middle School.

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