Not average, awesome: Preschoolers shine at CUSD Mini Olympics

Freedom Elementary School students participate in the 50-meter race during Clovis Unified School District’s Mini Olympics held at Buchanan High School, May 17, 2018. (Valerie Shelton/Clovis Roundup)

For one special day each spring, the field just north of Buchanan High School’s stellar Olympic-style track transforms into its own Olympic stage for the district’s tiniest and mightiest as kids in local special day preschool programs come together for the annual Mini Olympics.

On Thursday, May 17, the 21st annual Mini Olympics welcomed over 650 students from Jefferson, Freedom, Gettysburg, Clovis Elementary, Reagan, Maple Creek, Century, Copper Hills, Valley Oak, Cole, Miramonte, Nelson, Woods, Boris, Oraze, and Clovis Infant Toddler Intervention Program (CITI Kids).

Special education family liaison Jennifer Kersten said the event is getting so large that even though it is already divided into two sessions, next year it could increase to three. As the number of kids participating grows, so does the community support, Kersten said.

“I have volunteers out here from Garfield, I have ROP sports medicine students out here, kids from Clovis High and even a class out here from the Clovis Adult School, so it is a whole community coming together,” Kersten said. “The teachers love it, the kids love it and it’s such a great family environment, so we don’t want to stop. As we get bigger we will probably have to split it and create a third session. Our programs are just really growing. I think it means a lot to the community that everyone can come and participate no matter their ability level.”

Olympic games at the Mini Olympics included the basketball play shooting game, a parachute game, blowing bubbles, and of course sprinting on the race track and earning an Olympic gold medal. While the district does have dedicated events for older special needs kids, such as a special education track meet, softball tournament and soccer tournament, Kersten said it is important at the preschool age to have activities all kids can participate in. The Mini Olympics is less about athleticism and more about having a fun end-of-the-year party celebrating all that the kids have accomplished in the past year, Kersten added.

Jefferson Elementary moms Cassie Rettig and Jessica Burghardt said they are amazed at the progress their children have made over the course of the year. Both kids participated in last year’s Mini Olympics, they said, but weren’t nearly as engaged.

Rettig said her daughter Violet, who has been diagnosed with autism, has grown by leaps and bounds since starting school at Jefferson.

“I don’t know how to put it into words,” Rettig said. “They’ve just been so amazing. She responds to us now, she has words and communicates. It went from being very difficult at home to being pleasant. It’s a world of difference. Even in the way she is participating in this event now compared to last year is huge.”

Burghardt’s son Nathan also has autism along with a learning disorder, both of which make him largely non-verbal. In many situations, Burghardt said, Nathan and the family must deal with the stigma and stereotypes surrounding his illness, but the Jefferson Elementary program and the celebratory Mini Olympics has been a light for them.

“The school is amazing, and I love seeing how they are with him and how the community comes together,” Burghardt said. “In my experience, especially with his disability, there tends to be a lot of judgment, but in this space it’s not like that at all. It’s great and I love it. This is his second year here and last year he wasn’t having it at all—he wouldn’t do the run, he wanted nothing to do with the bubbles and I don’t remember him touching any of the water. But now he’s wants to do everything. I totally give it to Hilary [his teacher] and the program at Jefferson because if it wasn’t for them he wouldn’t be where he is.”

While some kids, like Violet and Nathan, were back for the second year in a row, there were also several children participating in the Mini Olympics for the first time, including 2-year-old Connor, a CITI kid who brought an entire fan club of at least 20 people—parents, grandparents, great grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins—with him. All these fans wore T-shirts sporting an Olympic hearts logo with the phrase “Team Connor” on the front and the saying “I’m not here to be average, I’m here to be awesome” on the back.

Connor’s mom Holly Willet said Conner doesn’t have a specific diagnosis, but the term used is “failure to thrive” meaning he wasn’t reaching certain development milestones, primarily in relation to his motor skills. Conner started working with CITI Kids, an early intervention program, when he was just 1 year old. At first, CITI Kids instructors did home visits, then once he turned 2 he started going to short group sessions for socialization with other kids. CITI Kids provides speech therapy, physical therapy and occupational therapy, and the program has been fantastic all the way around, Willet said.

“We really appreciated the one-on-one stuff in the beginning because it showed us different techniques to get him going and different ways to get him to the point he could be at. We’ve really enjoyed the group activities too because they do stations and give kids the feel of a school setting, but it isn’t too long,” Willet said. “Connor loves going, and he’s responded very well to it.

“We’ve never been to the Mini Olympics before, but we had heard it is huge and he is having a blast. He loves to be outside and is constantly wanting to be outside exploring so he is in his element.”

The family rallied together to support Connor during the event because it meant a lot not only to Connor, but to his older brother as well, who always has support at his athletic games, but needs to see that even though Connor can’t do the same things he can, that he too should be celebrated.

“We have a 4-year-old and we feel like he gets to do his thing with sports and being in regular preschool, so it’s nice to have something for Connor because it always seems to be all about our 4-year-old and what he is doing,” Willet said. “We really appreciate this event and know the importance of getting that early intervention to help with his development. We think it helps our 4-year-old to see that there are kids who are different and have different abilities … I think a lot of people think kids have to be a certain way, but everyone is different. Everyone has their own way of learning and their own abilities and it doesn’t make them any less than any other person.”