DRYDEN — A whistle blew and nearly 100 kids dropped the pizza and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They separated in two gyms at Tompkins Cortland Community College, and before the events resumed, some took time to play. But when the music turned on, the competition returned.
“It’s about finding success,” said Krista Gillette, an assisted physical education teacher at Dryden Central School District and one of the founding members of the Dryden Games.
The Dryden Games is a daylong event to promote physical fitness for students with physical and cognitive disabilities as well as students with low physical education scores. The competition is an effort to create an even level of play for students who struggle with general physical education activities and to create a healthy connotation around physical fitness.
The event started five years ago, and the efforts have been funded by sponsors, most notably the Ithaca Elks Lodge — which has donated $2,000 most years and $2,500 this year. Kids are chosen based on their experiences with physical and cognitive disabilities and are scored against students with similar disabilities.
“I want to cry when I see it,” said Rita Carlson, the exalted ruler of the Ithaca Elks Lodge. “It’s just wonderful to see these kids able to have fun.”
Georgia Braxton, 8, rounds an obstacle in The Dryden Games obstacle course. The event was created five years ago to give children with disabilities the opportunity to participate in fitness competition.
Gillette was inspired to start the event by a former student. On Dec. 1, 2008, then 12-year-old Shyanne Loveless attended school as if it was a normal day, Gillette said. Loveless was a typical student, a cheerleader and softball player. But she complained of a headache, and then it got worse. She screamed in pain, threw up and was rushed to Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse, where she entered a coma.
What was eventually diagnosed as a brain stem aneurysm stripped her of many of her physical abilities and damaged her cognitive response. She wore a breathing tube, traveled with machines to suction her saliva after she lost the ability to swallow and lost much of her ability to balance, so physical education in school was dedicated to learning how to walk again.
One day in 2014, she sat in Gillette’s office and raised a question: “Ms. Gillette,” Loveless asked, “why aren’t there games that I could compete in?”
“Why don’t we just start our own games?” Gillette said.
It has since developed into a large project. Students serve in leadership positions at the club and high schoolers volunteer at the event, where they are paired with an athlete for the day.
Athletes ran around with a torch in the opening ceremonies, then separated to two gyms where they kicked soccer balls, navigated obstacle courses and ran laps around the perimeter.
Senior Ellie Freeman has participated in the Dryden Games for five years and has been the club treasurer for three. She signs off on checks, where money goes and helps aid the planning of shirt design and purchasing. In five years, they’ve gained sponsors that donate everything from food and smaller amounts of money.
Gillette wanted to give Freeman a chance to speak at her last Dryden Games, so Freeman took the microphone and told a story about an interaction she and Gillette had on a bus.
“She said, ‘Ellie, shut your mouth,’” Freeman said. Everyone laughed.
“Thank you Ellie for making me blush,” Gillette said. “It was all out of love, I promise.”
Seniors were presented with flowers after the opening ceremonies, and Freeman skipped in excitement to receive hers.
Tuesday morning, Gillette wondered about her favorite part. The support from the support from the communities? The free stuff? No, Gillette’s favorite part is the pride on the kids’ faces when they receive a medal. As she spoke, she was interrupted.
“I’ve been doing pretty good,” said 14-year-old student, A.J. Little. “I beat Morgan’s time in the (slalom) course.”
“Great job!” Gillette said and she smiled at Little, who smiled back.