FITCHBURG -- Townsend parent Regina Coulter, the mother of three boys who participated in Fitchburg State University's sixth annual Special Olympics, said the outpouring of support from others is what makes Special Olympics so special.
"I couldn't believe how many grandparents, parents and family members -- so many people from the community -- were cheering (the athletes) on," she said. "I think it's great."
This year's event, with 650 athletes and 160 FSU student volunteers, was held under a cloudless sky on Friday, April 26.
Coulter and her husband Mike's three children, Curtis, 14, Ben, 11, and Johnathan, 8, each competed in three events this year. Curtis was first invited to attend three years ago, but this was the first year his younger brothers had the opportunity to compete.
Curtis, who earned medals in the softball throw, relay, and 50-meter dash, said he loves to run, and has started taking track this year at Nissitissit Middle School.
Younger brother Ben said he first started training for the competition last February. Proudly showing off his medals, a gold and two silvers, he said his favorite event was the 50-meter dash, in which he finished first.
"As soon as they said go, I started," he said of the race. "Next year I want to have three gold medals."
Youngest brother Johnathan was equally enthusiastic. All three boys said they would love to enter the Olympics next year.
"I think it's great that they do it," said their father. "They work hard in school all year. It's fun for them all.
Ayer parents Chris and Alison Hillman were thrilled for their son Jack, a second-grader at Page Hilltop Elementary School, to participate in his first Special Olympics. He has been playing Nashoba Unlimited Basketball, and this year started playing baseball, but the 50-meter dash he raced on Friday was his first running event.
"He's usually not a runner," his mother later said. "Some with Down syndrome are a little pokey. But he loved it so much that he ran back and wanted to do it again. It inspired him to run."
At the tennis ball throw, parent Tim Dolan watched intently as his son Shane, a fourth-grader at Florence Roche Elementary School in Groton, drew back his arm and flung the bright green sphere as far as he could.
"Everything's positive about (Special Olympics)," he mused. "Everyone does everything for all the right reasons."
"They have more love and more drive than anyone else does," said Fitchburg parent Melanie Cahalane of the athletes. "They love everybody. Who doesn't come to these things and not shed a tear?"
Cahalane said her 10-year-old daughter Chyanne was competing in the Special Olympics for the first time. As the determined Fitchburg Arts Academy student participated in the softball throw, her mother and older sister Samantha, a senior at Fitchburg High School who works with special-education students, looked on.
"I am so proud, but I'm kind of sad, because my husband passed away last year," said Cahalane, whose own health problems led her to move from her home in Winthrop to Fitchburg. "But everything happens for a reason. It was great to come to Fitchburg. The special-ed department there is phenomenal."
Within minutes, Cahalane was taking photos of Chyanne standing atop a pedestal, brandishing her first gold medal. With a timid smile, she soaked up the love and adulation of her mother, sister and a family friend.
Event Faculty Director and current Vice President of Kappa Delta Pi's Executive Council Dr. Laurie DeRosa credits the success of this year's Special Olympics to student Event Director Laura Shotwell.
"(The event) is student run, and I am the faculty support," she said. "Every year the event director is a different student."
The event began, she said, when Special Olympics asked the university if it would like to help. The school's international honor society in education, Kappa Delta Pi, was first to become involved, but the organization soon realized that the school needed about 150 people to put the event together.
"The education department wasn't enough, so we spread out across the campus. I have to give kudos to (FSU) President (Robert) Antonucci. He has a kind heart. He says, 'Use our facility -- that's what it's for. It's for the community.'"
DeRosa said volunteers do the fundraising, and sponsorships for the event have been consistent for six years.
"What makes it so special is the joy of the families, the friends, the volunteers."
"Who does this most benefit?" interjected Fundraising Director Dr. Nancy Murray. "They are teaching the children," she said of the teachers and paraprofessionals who accompany their students.
"They are seeing (behavior) modeled by their teachers, including in transitions. It is being modeled, and it's all kind, and caring and ethical. That's what it's all about."
"And the alumni come back to support it," added DeRosa of the student volunteers. "I even see them as teachers in the field. What a great perpetual event.
"It's a community collaboration. Not just one organization, but a family of people that collaborate to make this event as successful as possible."
Shotwell said she has been volunteering for the Special Olympics for three years. She started out as a trainer at the track.
A senior clinical exercise physiology major, Shotwell said, "I was really honored to be asked to do this."
Since the big kick-off meeting last February, she helped recruit 160 volunteers, including 20 assistant directors of different events who help to train the others.
On the day of the event, "The volunteers do what we train them to do," she said. "They have done an amazing job. This year has gone smoothly and I am really proud of them."