It was an experiment that could easily become a new Lander University tradition, as more than 150 students, parents, spectators and educators were involved in the school's first-ever Unified Sports Day.
The inaugural event, held Jan. 24 in Finis Horne Arena and the Joel V. Chandler Center, drew 80 students with special needs throughout the Greenwood 50 school district to participate in a variety of sports activities.
Dozens of local adults and about 50 Lander students representing the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity and Lander's chapter of Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) were on hand to assist special-needs students in basketball, bocce, soccer and dance.
"Unified Sports Day is a version of Special Olympics," said Wesley Hamilton, 2016-17 president of Delta Sigma Phi, who helped plan the event with CEC. "We saw this as a way to create an event for kids who often don't get these kinds of opportunities."
District 50 currently has about 1,300 special education students, ages 3 to 21, with disabilities that range from very mild to severe. These students came to Lander from six area schools: Merrywood Elementary, Matthews Elementary, Woodfields Elementary, Northside Middle, Brewer Middle, and Emerald High.
"I am so glad these students got some deserved recognition and a chance to participate in competitions," said Shelby Thomas, director of Area 5 Special Olympics for South Carolina. "Having this event at Lander helped make that possible for them."
The idea for Unified Sports Day originated in 2017 through the combined efforts of Delta Sigma Phi and special education senior Jordan Blackwell.
Blackwell, a member of CEC, was looking into the possibility of bringing Special Olympics back to Greenwood.
When the idea proved too big to pursue at the time, she decided to start on a smaller scale, and learned that Delta Sigma Phi was thinking along the same lines.
"So after a couple of weeks of planning and ideas, we decided to combine our efforts and came up with the Unified Sports Day," said Blackwell, who eventually wants to teach special needs students in K-12. "Now that we've had this first one, I hope it will become an annual Lander event."
If so, Unified Sports Day could eventually lead to the return of Special Olympics in Greenwood - or at the very least, to another annual signature event for Lander and Greenwood's special-needs community.
"I have said many times that we need to have a local Special Olympics event so that we can have more participation and bring our community together in this way for our children and adults with disabilities," said Melissa Latham, special services manager for District 50. "But for now, I couldn't be more excited and proud of how this first Unified Sports Day came together."