Taking a drive through the Monarch Way parking lot, Special Games participants and their families are greeted by popular animated characters ready to take pictures with everyone, dancers smile and wave, furry friends welcome hugs, and at the very end, the athletes receive a T-shirt and cheeseburgers to go. Today is a day to celebrate the Mater Dei special needs community.
On Sat. March 27th, the annual Special Games—an outreach event that typically has about 250 athletes with special needs engage in a day of games, dancing, and activities—took place for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic started. After being cancelled in 2020, this year’s event was restructured into a drive thru parade to maintain safety for everyone involved. The event included food from TK Burgers, characters from Frozen and Marvel, the Santa Ana Police and Fire Departments with comfort dogs, dancers from the Tupua Polynesian company, and DJ music.
Event Coordinator and Christian Service Director Stephanie Hopkins described the main intention for this year: to use campus space to welcome and celebrate people.
“We modeled after what we saw at other [drive thru] events…so we decided to make it very visual and auditory depending on what is sensitive for you,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins likened Special Games this year to the Disneyland ride “It’s A Small World” as participants and their families stayed in their car. All they had to do was drive through to see the various attractions at safe distances.
Special Games was unfortunately not a large volunteer opportunity as it usually is because the student-buddy program would be too risky and not in compliance with social distancing guidelines. Despite that, the limited number of students that were able to come help were led by student directors and seniors Isabelle Tran and Thien-Nhi Tran.
“All we had to do was show up with a smile on our faces to welcome everyone,” Isabelle Tran said.
Campus Ministry commissioners and football players worked to check-in cars, take photos of families, or hand out T-shirts. Members of the cheer team were also there to bring out school spirit and energy.
“Most of the people who come in always have such genuine smiles, and it’s refreshing to interact with people who are so unabashedly themselves,” Nhi Tran said.
Hopkins expressed slight concern in planning and preparation for the event, such as worry if the event would go as planned and the fear of not having many participants present. However, the exact opposite happened. The excitement and joy on the faces of families were clearly evident, especially for those in the community with special needs who are vulnerable in the midst of the pandemic and haven’t been able to go out often.
“What made this year special was how Mater Dei really went out of their way to still create an event for the community. I just love how fast and efficiently we adapted to everything,” Isabelle Tran said. “And also, I love to see just everyone come. Everyone’s spirit was so high and they were so excited, and it just made me so happy.”
Overall, Hopkins said that she would do things a little differently for future Games like adding more visual aspects as well as utilizing the main parking lot more thanks to having to reimagine the event. Yet the wish is to still have Special Games back to its original interactive day of fun when it is finally possible and safe again.
“Everybody [was] so desperate to do something and to do something good and to make people smile,” Hopkins said. “That’s basically what we’re trying to do: [make] people smile and have a nice lunch to go.”