With the Special OIympics Canada Winter Games taking place later this month, school kids with special needs in Milton, Ont., are getting their own three-day sports festival — and it's more popular than ever.
The festival, which starts Wednesday, is run by Special Olympics Ontario (SOO) and the Halton District School Board (HDSB). It's part of a long-standing partnership where elementary students with special needs come together to try different Special Olympics events, from basketball to bocce.
Sophie Hou's 10-year-old son Matteo loves swimming, running and soccer and has been in programs for all three, but she says he's never taken part in anything quite like this week's festival at the Milton Velodrome.
"A sports day is super exciting for all kids," said Hou. "As a parent (of a child) with special needs, it's even more exciting, because our child's doing something like all the other kids."
More students each year
Special Olympics Ontario partners on sports festivals with school boards across the province, but the HDSB event, which is part of the school board's equity strategy, is the biggest.
And since it returned from a COVID-19 pandemic-induced hiatus last year, it's only grown bigger, with nearly 400 students registered this week, according to Stacey Farrell, system vice president of special education services for the HDSB.
"In fact, there's so much demand that we've added a third day so we can include more students," said Farrell.
That's only a year after the festival was expanded to two days for the same reason.
"And the number's continuing to grow year after year," said Ryan Colpitts, who develops programming for SOO.
Last year's festival was extended to two days to fit in all the registered students. This year's will add yet another day, with more than 300 students registered. (Submitted by Halton District School Board)
Each day of the festival, he says, students rotate through different activities with guidance from volunteers.
"So they get the full experience of what Special Olympic sports are there to be offered to community athletes," he said. "And from there, they just get to interact with their peers and really have fun with the day."
SOO runs 18 sports at a competitive level in Ontario, said Colpitts.
Fun festival can inspire lifelong passion
Colpitts says these sports festivals are the first step for some of Ontario's 26,000 special needs athletes, who eventually compete at the high school or community level, or even in national competition, like the Winter Games being held later this month.
Hou says she knows her son will want to compete, but however he does, he'll get something out of the festival.
"I know my guy always likes to be number one," she said. "Might be tough if he doesn't get number one, but that's a lesson learned."
Ultimately, she's happy that kids like her son have the chance to get out with their peers, have fun and show their abilities.
"When a stranger takes them out and says, 'Here, try this,' and they do it," she said, "it's amazing."
"They can do so much more than we think."