LHISD celebrates Special Olympians

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By ANTHONY FLORES

Parents, student-athletes, teachers, and administrators packed into Liberty Hill Elementary’s gym as LHISD honored its Special Olympics athletes. The crowd erupted in applause as students were called up by name to receive medals.

Student-athletes Kris Draper, Hannah Eubanks, Naomi Eubanks, Nathan Eubanks, Bryan Mapel, Elijah Shelton, Cassidy Sandlin, Emily Roberts, Bralyn Laird, Walker Raney, Kevin Ellet-Graves, and Gabriel Callaway each received a medal.

As they prepare to age out of LHISD’s 18-plus Special Olympics program, Raney and Callaway received plaques, championship coins from Superintendent Steve Snell and delivered farewell speeches. Raney and Callaway are LHISD’s first Special Olympic athletes to receive letterman jacket honors for their athletic accomplishments.

“I’ve been in Special Olympics since I was eight years old,” Callaway said to the crowd. “Special Olympics has helped me with teamwork and skills. I want to thank my Special Olympic Panther team. This is a big privilege for me. I know this is my last year with the Panthers. Let’s have fun doing what we’re doing and get out there. It also taught me not to be a ball hog. Have fun, work together, and go Panthers.”

Raney’s departure is a momentous occasion for the program. The letterman jacket winner has been in the program since age 3.

“I didn’t expect to get a plaque today,” said Raney. “I have autism spectrum disorder, and I’ve been attending Liberty Hill since I was three and a half. I’ll be graduating from our 18-plus program. I’ve made many friends. I’ve also learned how to communicate better with my teammates, which in turn, has helped me in my everyday life, especially at work. I am now an employee at Sweet Heat Jam.”

The night carried layers of emotion for Student Support Services Coordinator and Special Olympics Head of Delegation Angela Meade. Raney is her son, and she’s known Callaway for most of his life.

“They watched our program grow,” said Meade. “They didn’t know what to expect at the competition, but they went out and crushed it.”

After Raney finished his speech, Meade took his place at the podium for a somber moment in the evening. She honored Emma Guyette, a Special Olympics athlete who passed away last March. Emma’s first experience with Special Olympics was in the sixth grade, shortly after the family arrived in Liberty Hill.

“It was her first opportunity to compete in Special Olympics, and I told her about it,” said Emma’s mother, Terry Guyette. “She was like, yeah, I’m not doing that. As I waited in the driveway after that first practice, she jumped out of the van and yelled I had the best time. She told me all about her teammates and couldn’t wait to go back.”

Guyette shared with the crowd how much Emma loved her time in Special Olympics.

“For Emma, she met her best friend there, Eli,” she said. “She couldn’t wait for the next event, for bowling, and for basketball. The love that team has and the Panthers have for their Special Olympics team can’t be matched. It’s something special.”

Long wait
The members of the Special Olympic team and student support services staff felt the ceremony was long overdue. They were robbed of the opportunity to celebrate their success last year when the COVID-19 pandemic started.

“We weren’t able to have our celebration last year right after we had won,” said Meade. “We had anticipated coming in and doing really well with track and field. We were going to try some new athletes at different events, but then COVID hit.”

Last year the Panthers were coming off their gold medal victory in basketball and riding the momentum of that win before the pandemic.

“We were excited about kicking things off,” said Meade. “We had more people saying they wanted to be a part of this. We had a big turnout. When you have more volunteers than you do athletes, that’s a great problem to have. We had people in the stands who had just found out we had one and were coming to support us. We had cheering at practice, and our athletes thought it was so cool.”

For the athletes and their coaches, the ceremony was a relief. It represented a fresh start as they can start to train once again. For Raney and Callaway, it’s bittersweet as they prepare to exit. Even so, the memories made with their comrades are forever.

“I remember the last gold medal we won,” said Raney. “It was as a basketball team. It was with my partners Gabe, Cassidy, Bryan and Kevin. I’m proud of every time I compete, and my teammates feel the same. I was proud to get my letterman jacket. It was May, it was hot, but we still wore them. We were so proud we didn’t care about being hot. We were Panthers.”

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