Friday is a special day at Kangaroo Stadium.
It’s the day of the annual Weatherford Roo Fest Special Olympics Event. From 9 a.m.-1:30 p.m., participants will compete in a variety of athletic events.
"It is a rewarding experience for everyone," said Roo Fest coordinator Patti Young. "It builds community between non-disabled and disabled students. We have hundreds of student volunteers from WISD and Weatherford College that want to join in this event every year because of the pride it brings to them.
"It is a day to celebrate life and the special gifts these children bring to our world. It is a day filled with friendship, collaboration and basic outdoor fun."
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The event, free to the public, will feature student-athletes from the Weatherford ISD and 13 other districts, including surrounding schools. The event allows students to be recognized for many of their skills that would not be seen in other circumstances.
Roo Fest began in the early 1990s to allow physically and mentally challenged students to compete and experience what non-disabled students do. Young became involved in 1993, initially as a teacher.
"The idea was to create an event that eventually becomes a pre-requisite event for Special Olympics," she said.
The event became officially supported by Special Olympics of Texas in 2007, Young said, crediting "some insightful Special Programs employees within our district that worked tirelessly to have this outstanding endorsement become a reality.”
"This endorsement was the foundation for our community parents to establish the Special Roos who compete in local, regional, state, and national competitions,” she said. “These are where our athletes earn true Olympic medals."
Roo Fest is meant to be fun above all else. That’s not to say the participants don’t take great pride in their accomplishments on that day.
Young said the best part of Roo Fest is "watching the students’ faces as they parade around the stadium, and seeing their parents’ tears of joy and pride while their students engage in athletic events supported by community volunteers.”
"It is wonderful; full of joy and teamwork,” she said. “Words cannot describe how meaningful this day is to all involved."
Everyone who participates earns ribbons and medals, so everyone is a winner. Still, participation in Roo Fest can open the door to competing in actual Special Olympics, Young said.
"This event allows students who do want to compete on developed, organized Olympic teams to begin that process," she said. "When you are actually on an Olympic team, it is as competitive, with modifications per event category depending on the disability competing, as any competition.
"If you enter our event you are considered an athlete in training and can advance to become a member of competitive team, such as track, bowling, equestrian, etc. We are recognized by The Special Olympics of Texas so that is why they assist and allow us to use their logo on our shirts, etc."
Michael Sullivan, statewide director of families and outreach for Special Olympics Texas, credited Young and the WISD for their efforts to help promote their program in this region.
"In every area we try to build off a hub, and our hub in this area is the Weatherford ISD," he said. "You plant that seed and it’s like a virus - but a good virus. People see the joy and what it can do for the community - schools and the community at large.
"Patti Young and [WISD superintendent] Dr. Jeffrey Hanks have been so supportive, allowing us to come in and spread our message. They have an understanding, as does the school board, of the importance of Special Olympics and the difference it makes in people’s lives."
Special Olympics has been around for over four decades, with Texas having become the largest Special Olympics in the nation - and second only to China in world participation. He said the state has over 54,000 participants and has increased by 60 percent over the past seven years.
Parker County has four Special Olympics teams in Weatherford, plus one in Aledo, one in Springtown and one in Hudson Oaks. Nearby Mineral Wells also has a team.
Aledo recently held its own Jumpin’ Jamboree, a similar event to Roo Fest. It featured approximately 130 participants from Poolville, Millsap, Peaster, White Settlement, Glen Rose, and of course Aledo, along with 100-plus Aledo High students, including the Bearcat Regiment drumline, cheerleaders, high-steppers and more.
Initially, Roo Fest was only for students in the WISD. Over the years it has grown to even include athletes from outside Parker County.
"We began inviting local Parker County schools, now we have schools such as Burleson ISD attending. We invite students attending home schools and private schools if they choose to attend," Young said. "Including WISD, there are 14 school districts that regularly join in the fun."
Athletes who participate in Roo Fest can not only go on to compete in Special Olympics, but continue to be competitive throughout life, such as Fundis. He is a past WISD graduate who competes on a local bicycle team.
"He is able to build upon his talents as a result of the foundational beliefs of the Special Olympics," said Young. "At 35, he remains a competitive athlete as a bicyclist. It is a lifetime involvement and achievement for these individuals and their families."
Among those who help make this day even more memorable are students in other venues in the WISD, including WHS varsity football, WHS soccer, WHS baseball, WHS volleyball, WHS wrestling, WHS cheerleaders, Blue Belles, cosmetology, Art Club, Rodeo Club and more.
Volunteers from the community are also a large part of the annual success, Young said. Among these are numerous area businesses, along with civic organizations such as Kiwanis and Optimist Club.
The Kiwanis Club donated T-shirts for all of the athletes this year, Young said. She also said becoming a volunteer is easy.
"For this event, you fill out a WISD volunteer form and go through the criminal history check, and if all is clear, you are a volunteer and we put you to work," she said.
Sullivan said it’s a “win-win” for all involved.
"Volunteers get as much out of it as the athletes," he said.