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Joy of Belonging

Johanna Brand

On a hot, cloudless day in June,  200 special needs students in the District School Board of Niagara took part in their first track and field day.

The event was the brainchild of special needs teacher Andy Dermatas. “I had a couple of students in wheelchairs and at the end of our track and field meet I would get in a wheelchair and race them. Then it occurred to me that I had to do something more,” Dermatas said.

Dermatas worked with physical education teacher Bryan Keyes, physical education consultant Ron Lopez, and special needs coordinator Carol Purser, to organize the day.

Special Olympics Ontario provided startup funds, donated ribbons, and came out to support the event. The parent council at Power Glen School in St. Catharines donated bottled water.

The volunteer list was “enormous,” according to Dermatas: “All of the people at the board office – a total of 40 – from the chair to the secretaries came to volunteer at the event. We had four people at each event for the whole day.”

Children with all kinds of challenges participated in the six events. In some cases, events were modified to take their challenges into account.

There was 95 percent participation from schools in the Niagara board. “Parents, teachers, and kids talked about it the next day and for many days thereafter,“ Dermatas recalled proudly.