Megan Gates-Perez will bring a familiar face to the Area 15 Special Olympics at Aiken High School on Friday.She has participated in the event for many years, as a student and now as an adult special athlete. The opening ceremony begins at 9:30 a.m., and the Games should continue until 12:30 p.m."It's always been fun," Gates-Perez said. "I like meeting new people and marching out on the field. I got to carry the banner one year."Hundreds of children ages 8 and older, teenagers and adults from Aiken, Edgefield and Saluda counties will participate in a variety of athletic events.Younger children ages 2 to 7 and other non-competitors in the formal Games will keep busy with the concurrent Very Special Arts Festival."Special Olympics changes lives by promoting understanding, acceptance and inclusion between people with and without intellectual disabilities," said coordinator and Tri-Development executive Jones Bowen.Students from area schools and other volunteers will serve as "buddies" for the athletes throughout the morning.The opening ceremony is modeled after the real Olympics. Each school's students will march into the football stadium with a banner and with the traditional music playing. The school with the most spirit will win an award.Scheduled to speak are S.C. Rep. Roland Smith, R-Warrenville, and Superintendents Dr. Beth Everitt (Aiken County), Dr. David Mathis (Saluda County) and Mary Crenshaw (Edgefield County).Emily Green, director of the advocacy organization Family Connection, has served as the athletes' registration coordinator for the past five years. She encouraged the general public to come out Friday and support the athletes.Less than 5 percent of those in attendance each year serve simply as fans. People are needed to stop by for a few minutes or more to cheer for the participants."I'm one of Special Olympics' biggest fans," Green said. "It's absolutely awesome. This is one opportunity for people with challenges to be able to compete with their peers and feel the satisfaction and success of meeting their goals."Gates-Perez said people at the Games yell encouragement, calling out, "I believe in you. You can do this."There are a number of other activities for special athletes throughout the year. Gates-Perez participated in equestrian Special Olympics several years ago while living in Florida. Earlier this month she won a silver medal at a regional bowling tournament in Charleston.All of this makes Gates-Perez a star, right? She just laughed. "If you want to call me that, OK."Contact Rob Novit at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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