Ceremony honors inspirational Special Olympics athletes

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By Dana Delgado

It was far from a full house, but this distinctive school district ceremony was overflowing with heartfelt appreciation for a host of inspirational athletes even before the program got underway.

A slide presentation, a prelude to the ceremony, vividly chronicled the emotion-filled year and all its fulfilling moments and triumphs.

Billed as an Awards Night at Liberty Hill Elementary School, this May 24th event quickly evolved into an extraordinary moving experience filled with jubilation, tears, and hugs as Special Olympics athletes made their way to the stage to receive their awards.

Family members, volunteers, community members, and officials from the Liberty Hill Independent School District, including Superintendent Rob Hart, greeted each of the 37 award winners with enthusiastic applause for accomplishments long in the making and which only a few years ago might have seemed like highly improbable feats.

At times during the ceremony, the audience broke out in the team cheer, “Have Fun, Work Together, Go Panthers,” a chant created in 2016 by Kylie Marshall and Christopher Klepper, the unofficial (volunteer) coordinator of the local Special Olympics delegation and coach of all sports since he was tasked by the school district to establish, develop and oversee the program.

“We thought through how it would be chanted back and forth, and ending with all of us saying ‘Go Panthers’ at the same time (symbolizing unity),” said Klepper. “We wanted a way to bring the students and volunteers together each practice. We modeled giving high fives and expressing gratitude. Then we would recite the Team Cheer (what we consider our mission statement).”

For Elyse Tarlton, LHISD Student Support Services Director, the Special Olympics Awards Night was the culmination of a dream she had when she first joined the school district a few years ago.

“I’m thrilled,” she said. “Through the work of so many people, my dream has become a reality.”

One by one, the athletes were called to the stage to receive a variety of awards for their participation in a number of Special Olympics events. For the first time ever, LHISD Letter Jackets were presented to 13 Special Olympics athletes.

Honored with jackets for their respective awards and events were Cassidy Sandlin (basketball 3-on-3/team, tennis, track and field), Emily Trythall (bowling team), Ashley Combs (bowling team, track and field), Bryan Mapel (basketball 3-on-3, bowling team, track and field), William Waldo (basketball 3-on-3, bowling team, tennis, track and field), and Gabriel Callaway (basketball 3-on-3, bowling team, track and field).

Also awarded jackets were Walker Raney basketball 3-on-3, bowling team, tennis, track and field), Emily Roberts (basketball team skills, bowling team, track and field), Tyler Hogan (basketball – individual, bowling – individual, track and field), Beau Burnett bowling – individual, track and field), Maddie Harper (basketball – individual, bowling team, track and field), Kris Draper (track and field), and Karla Henriquez (basketball team, bowling team, track and field).  

Letter Jacket winner Walker Raney addressed the audience as a guest speaker talking on “What Special Olympics Means to Me.”

“It taught me to care about others and I even made friends with athletes from other Special Olympics’ teams,” he said. “When I won my first gold medal, it made me feel like I could achieve anything.”

Other students recognized for their participation in Special Olympics were William Askew (bowling, track and field) John Barnes (bowling), Jenna Blanton –Davis (basketball, bowling), Stephen Calabresi (basketball, bowling), Nicholas Cruz (bowling, track and field), Hannah Eubanks (basketball, bowling, track and field), Naomi Eubanks (basketball, bowling, track and field), Nathan Eubanks (basketball, bowling, track and field), Joshua Fleming (track and field) and Elisha Garcia (basketball, bowling team, tennis, and track and field).

In addition, Hannah Graves (bowling, track and field), Preston Hayes (track and field), Bralyn Laird (basketball, bowling, track and field), Palyn Melson (basketball, track and field), Isaak Niehaus (bowling, track and field), Andrew Rimann (basketball, bowling, track and field), Madison Schuessler (basketball, bowling, tennis, and track and field) and Marissa Schuessler (basketball, bowling, tennis, track and field) were honored.

Also receiving awards were Elijah Shelton (basketball, bowling, track and field), Chasity Snider (bowling, track and field), Dusti Stauffer (basketball, track and field), Levi Strauss (basketball, bowling, tennis, track and field), Alexandro Tobias (bowling) and Ethan Watson (basketball, bowling) were presented awards.

“There are some great memories,” said Klepper. “As for the letter jackets, it was so good to see smiling faces. I think it’s a neat athletic rite of passage. I’m glad it’s a tradition now. Our student-athletes should wear them proudly.”

Klepper added that there was no greater reward than teaching and working with the athletes as well as bonding with parents and volunteers for whom he expressed great appreciation for their dedication.

Serving as emcee at the awards ceremony, Angela Meade, parent of one of the athletes and a volunteer coach, recognized the contributions of Special Olympics’ volunteers.

Honored were volunteer coaches Marcy Brooks, Christopher Klepper, Kylie Marshall, Jami Shelton, Beth Williamson and Meade herself. A host of other volunteers were shown appreciation including Erin Askew, Kenna and Will Gatlin, Shellie Brewer, Stacy Cox, Leto Eguia, Mary Farooq, Burk and Tara Frederick, Kate Garcia and Liberty Hill Elementary School Principal Heather Collison.

“This was my first experience with Special Olympics,” said Collison who assisted with basketball. “I enjoyed every moment of the practices. The inspiration of the athletes brings me great joy.”

Other volunteers recognized were Jennifer Hurley, Kiley and Lilly Jameyson, Cho Law, Mary Mapel, Terry Mayer, Sybil Nance, Cecilia Naylor, Amy and Ty Rampy, David Robertson, Naate Salcido, Sam Shelton, and Lauren Brooks, a graduating high school senior who has volunteered since the very beginning.

“It has been one of my most cherished experiences working with Special Olympics,” Brooks said.

Also honored were volunteers Jayla Stauffer, Alesha, Blake, Reed and Madax Tolbert, Mia Turner, Lauren Werchan, and Madison Cochran, who has assisted the past two years with track and field athletes.

“My teacher got me into it when I was a junior in high school,” Cochran said. “I love helping people. I love the kids.”

Grace Alive Church was acknowledged for providing volunteers and refreshments for the event.

In the spirit of the Special Olympics, everyone wins. In line with the Special Olympics Texas: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

After years of hard work by so many, the Liberty Hill Special Olympics has struck a winning chord with not only its athletes but with the entire community.

The chants of “Have Fun, Work Together, Go Panthers” will resonate long after this unforgettable awards night.

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