Drew Van Der Stuyf wants to be a special education teacher. This week the Liberty High School senior had the opportunity to work closely with children with developmental disabilities that he'll serve as a teacher — which made him even more excited about his career choice.
"The chance to be out here with these kids really makes me happy," said Van Der Stuyf, who will major in special education at the University of Maryland College Park. "This is their day. But I'm as excited as they are."
Van Der Stuyf was one of more than 300 volunteers who came to Winters Mill High School on April 25 for the annual Special Olympics Carroll County Spring Games.
The former high school quarterback joined a large contingent of Liberty students that supported a unique group of athletes. Van Der Stuyf was paired with Robert Golden, a Winfield Elementary School third-grader.
"My big inspiration was my uncle, who taught math to special education students," said Van Der Stuyf, a first-time "fan" at the games who is interning at Sykesville Middle School. "These kids are sometimes not seen as normal, and I want to give them the chance to do what my peers do. I'll make an impact on their lives, while they're also making an impact on mine."
Wednesday's event culminated a year of training for the athletes, who represented nearly every school in the county and were warmly greeted by hundreds of spectators as they walked around the Winters Mill track during the opening ceremony.
Among the speakers was County Commissioner Haven Shoemaker, who credited Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver for starting a program that now includes four million athletes from more than 70 countries.
After longtime Special Olympian Josh Smith said "let the games begin," student-athletes and their fans headed for their first event. The track and field events and softball throw were particular favorites of the 190 participants, whose excitement and anticipation revealed why the program has continued to grow in the county and around the world.
"It means so much to see their faces when they win, and they didn't think they could do it," said Trish Chernock, who works for the Arc of Carroll County but volunteers as the area director and program coordinator for Special Olympics.
"It's hard to explain how incredible these kids are," she said. "They make you realize how much more we could be doing. We need to continue to grow the program in general within the county, and help them go on to the state, national, and international competitions."
Chernock knows Special Olympics can't be done without a group effort, but cites the coaches as a crucial cog in the athletes' success.
"It's imperative that we have awesome coaches," said Chernock, whose husband, Ryan, is a basketball and soccer coach and who has a brother (Daniel Graham) who is a Special Olympics athlete. "Their role is to introduce the athletes to what they could be doing, figure out what their best abilities are, and make them grow. This is just one day to show our coaches how incredible they are."
Many Special Olympians begin participating in the year-round program in their formative years. It's not unusual for those older than 18, such as Elle Markle, to continue competing.
"I've been doing this since elementary school at Hampstead," said Markle, 20, a student at Carroll Community College. "I did really well at the walking competition, but my favorite is the softball throw. I trained really hard this year."
The excitement of the day isn't restricted to competitors. Many of the fans come out year after year, showing true devotion. Markle's fan, Jamie Clark, returned for a third straight year.
"I got involved with the Friends for Life Club at school, and this is one of their major activities," said Clark, a junior who played for Century High's state finalist girls' basketball team. "It's chaotic, but I love it. It's so much different than the other events that I've done, and it's great to see how happy they are."
The Liberty High fans, who made personalized posters for each of the school's Special Olympians, weren't the only group with a raucous cheering section. Chants of "Riley, Riley" rose from a sizable group of supporters from Westminster Elementary. When Riley Snyder finished her 50-meter dash, a broad smile and a look of satisfaction was on her face.
"They told me 'let's go, Riley'," said the fifth-grader at Westminster of her classmates. "This feels special."
Riley's fans, Liberty juniors Samantha Bost and Samantha Haas, were impressed with her support system and general good nature.
"It's awesome to work with her," said Bost, who intends to become a pediatric physical therapist. "Riley has two brothers supporting her today, and her entire fifth grade is here."
Haas plans to make Special Olympics a destination in her senior year.
"The kids always seem so happy when they're doing their events," she said. "I definitely want to stay involved, because they inspire me."
The bond between Special Olympians and their fans goes beyond socialization. Emily Barker, fresh from a medal-winning performance in the softball throw, celebrated her achievement with fans Christina Smith and Sierra Reppe, both juniors at Winters Mill High.
Suddenly, Barker wrapped both of her arms around Smith and lifted her off the ground.
"It's no wonder that her softball throw went so far," said Smith, who plans to be a pediatric nurse. "She's strong, and she's also the sweetest girl. I've always had a soft spot for kids, and it makes me feel so good to help out."
The event is an emotional one for the participants' parents as well. Emily's mother, Rachel Barker, gave her oldest child a tight hug and followed her to the awards area after Emily's medal-winning effort in the softball throw.
"This gives her an opportunity to do her best and really stand out," said Barker, the mother of four. "Today, she was up and dressed before I even came down the hall (to wake her). There's a lot of praise and appreciation everywhere."
Although Emily has Down syndrome, Barker has always wanted the eighth-grader at West Middle to be treated like other children.
"Her siblings are very envious of Emily, because she has certain opportunities that they don't have like the Special Olympics," Barker said. "But they treat her just like they treat each other. They don't know any different way. "