COVINGTON, Ga. -- Latrelle Cawthon looks through her binder full of information, logistics and names associated with the Newton County Special Olympics, and she sees one particular participant’s age.
She calls her by name, as if she knows her personally — probably because she does.
“I didn’t know she’d turned 40 already,” Cawthon said.
Her eyes scanned further down the sheet of paper and she announced another name, and another personal detail about them — the kind of details you could only be privy to if you’ve made intentional effort to know them well.
What makes this impressive is the fact that Cawthon has over 480 names in that binder, including five more that were added within the last week. These are all participants in the annual Special Olympics track and field games that will take place starting with an opening ceremony and parade in Covington’s downtown square.
“These five are people who have just moved to Covington, or they’re just new students,” Cawthon says. Then she pauses, looks back at her binder and then looks up with a smile and says, “I’m so proud of our program.”
From year to year few things change about the hardcore logistics of the county’s annual Special Olympics games, held at Sharp Stadium each year. This year, the biggest alteration is the timing. Typically held in April, Cawthon and her staffed shifted things to the week before Newton County Schools go on spring break in order to combat another positive problem she’s having.
“We have so many kids coming to volunteer this year, and with it being in April it just gets in the way of their testing, juggling soccer schedules and all of that,” Cawthon said. “So we figured the week before spring break is a perfect time. Our numbers are growing. Our town and community is growing. We’ve got so many more volunteers. It’s a great problem to have.”
Help from ’out of nowhere’
Neither Cawthon, nor Darissa McDaniel, her main partner in the planning and execution of this annual event, see many bad problems in what they do for the kids they love. And it doesn’t take long for anyone to tell just how much love both of them have for their work with the county’s special needs kids.
“It really is the kids that just keeps you coming back,” McDaniel said. “It’s like, the smile on their faces. They’re so happy to participate in the events, and they just love the opening day ceremonies and the parade. They love that more than the events. And working with Latrelle is good too. We make a good team.”
“So many don’t understand disability. They’re scared of it and they don’t relax to see that these are just people."Latrelle Cawthon
Cawthon and McDaniel have been working the Special Olympics as a tandem for the last six years. McDaniel’s arrival, Cawthon said, was nothing more than a product of divine intervention.
“I had a person leave the program,” Cawthon said,” and I had been praying, ‘God, just send me who you need. Send me the right person.’”
“I came out of nowhere,” McDaniel acknowledged.
McDaniel, originally from Oakland, Calif., moved to Covington to finish her senior year of high school at Newton High. In California, she was a basketball player for her local high school and on the AAU circuit.
“You should’ve played your senior year at Newton,” Cawthon quipped at McDaniel who let out a hearty chuckle.
“Academics first,” she replied. “I needed to make sure I graduated on time.”
But the love for basketball and just sports in general never left McDaniel. In fact, her involvement with Special Olympics sports has only increased that love.
“I still love basketball, so my first year, we started the basketball team,” McDaniel said. “We had one team. We worked hard and won second place. But then the next year we had two teams and won first and second place. And I just loved it. The kids are so involved, so happy. The parents. Whenever we’re out working together in these environments, it’s like one big happy family.”
A special family reunion
The family will get together again this week at Sharp Stadium for the Special Olympic Games, starting Monday at 10:15 a.m. with the aforementioned parade and opening ceremonies on the square.
After that, the close-to-500 special needs students, along with scores of volunteers, will converge onto Sharp Stadium for three days of events, such as the standing and running long jump, softball throw and 100 and 50 meter dashes.
Cawthon said there will also be developmental events for wheelchair athletes. She acknowledged that the unpredictable weather has her a bit nervous about rescheduling in the event of rain. She has contingency plans set up just in case, which include potentially postponing to the week after spring break if it rains for consecutive days, or moving events indoors.
But those concerns are secondary to the event’s main goal — putting smiles on kids’ faces, and showcasing how special the Special Olympics program is to Newton County.
“The fact that it’s so publicized and is such a big event that the community sees, it brings so much more support in from other members of the community,” Cawthon said. “The school system provides transportation which is a huge expense. Other than that, we need support from the community. And the community sees these kids, and the joy it brings, and it makes them say, ‘I want to give to that. I want to be a part of that.’”
Cawthon said she’s definitely seen an uptick in participation this year from previous years. And she thinks it’s indeed due to the fact that more people are learning to see special needs students just as they would see anyone else.
“So many don’t understand disability,” Cawthon said. “They’re scared of it and they don’t relax to see that these are just people.”
“They’re just like anybody else,” McDaniel added.
Ultimately, though both Cawthon and McDaniel are hoping to affect the lives of the kids and those who work with them once again, they also will take fresh notice of how the students they work with every day impact their own lives.
“It teaches me to love and live without fear,” Cawthon said.
“They don’t worry like us,” McDaniel said. “They’re out there dancing, and having a good time. They don’t fear like us. I see them, and it makes me a better person.”