Last Friday was a big day for the small but vibrant Orillia Christian school (OCS) community. Words of encouragement, shouts of laughter, and hearty cheering were louder than usual as staff and students hosted a Sport Festival in association with Special Olympics and its Physical Activity Healthy Living (PAHL) program.
The aim of the day was to have students with intellectual disabilities from both Catholic and public schools in Simcoe County play a variety of sports in a comfortable and encouraging context.
Whether they were wielding hockey sticks, charging soccer nets or dribbling basket balls at different sports stations, athletes were made to feel appreciated and valued from the moment they stepped onto the OCS property.
“One couldn’t help but be happy at the end of the day,” said OCS Principal Donna Veenstra about the event. “Watching the interactions. The joy on these children’s faces was amazing.”
Part of the festival’s success hinged on it being a school-wide expression of hospitality. Grades 1 to 3 students greeted guests holding posters and banners they designed themselves. Grades 4 to 6 students served lunch to the athletes, and acted as photographers and reporters. (They plan to send out mini magazines about the day to participating schools.) Grade 7 and 8 students embraced the task of running the events, and were intentional in making sure the athletes were having a good time.
“I didn’t see a single student hold back,” said Veenstra. “They just embraced the day and were engaged in it.”
A week before the festival students were visited by a Special Olympics representative to prepare for their big hosting opportunity.
“She was amazed at how the students just really got it,” said Veenstra. “They understand that people with disabilities are human beings just like them, and no different.”
Such news might not come as a surprise to OCS parents. Earlier this year the school participated in a week long event called “Walking in My Shoes”, during which students explored the complexities that come with defining people by their abilities or disabilities. Anchoring the learning week was 1 Corinthians 12—a passage in the bible that compares the Christian community to “one body” made up of “many parts.”
Veenstra said that the school was inspired by the idea that everybody, no matter what they believe their weaknesses or disabilities to be, “has something they can contribute to the group as a whole.”
In February, OCS shared some reflections that came out of the learning week on the school’s Facebook page.
“There are no mistakes when it comes to how we were made,” reflected one student. “How can someone be teased for being “different,” when there is no normal. We are all different!”
For others, the week offered a new perspective on attitude.
“When I think my life is hard, then I’m negative about it … there are people who have bigger struggles and yet face them positively. I could definitely learn from that.”
“I am often shy, or even a bit awkward when around disabled people,” wrote another student. “This week has made me think how awful it would be if I was disabled and no one wanted to talk to me because they saw me as being different.”
Evidently, feelings of shyness or awkwardness didn’t stop OCS students from embracing their guests and making them feel at home in their school.
That’s something Veenstra is grateful for—as she believes that showing love to those who are often pigeonholed as the “different” or “weak” members of society, is an essential part of the Christian walk.
“The EA’s who came with the athletes were overwhelmed by the event of the day—how important the kids felt,” noted Veenstra. “They see their students marginalized all the time - to have a day where they are important was amazing. At the end they just said to us please do it again.”
Although Veenstra viewed the festival as a way to “give back” to the broader community, the experience was a gift for OCS students and staff too.
“Whenever you do something like this, in the end, you yourself are deeply blessed by it in ways you never imagined.”