Menendez High School welcomed nearly 150 differently abled students from five St. Johns County schools for Friday’s Victory Day.
It's possible Friday was the best day of the academic year for scores of St. Johns County students.
Ashley Banks certainly believes that may be the case. The veteran teacher at Gamble Rogers Middle School said her students look forward to Victory Day more than any other.
Victory Day is a field day where nearly 150 students who are enrolled in the Exceptional Student Education program at their school were able to have a field trip to Menendez High School.
The aim of the day was the expose local ESE students to the perseverance and togetherness that are routinely required by successful sports teams in a setting outside the classroom.
Five schools participated on Friday morning.
A tie-dye shirt served as the identifier of the quintet. Menendez students wore blue. Gamble Rogers Middle School students sported pink. Students from Osceola Elementary were in green, South Woods Elementary in orange and those from the Transitions School wore purple.
"It's an accepting day where they are celebrated and feel like rock stars," said Banks, who has worked with differently abled students for 14 years. "They will talk about this day until the end of the year."
Menendez's Athletic Leadership Council conducted most of the logistics and legwork to get the event off the ground. Banks said the student-led initiative means more to her pupils because a message of inclusivity sounds different coming from a peer than an adult.
Garrett Jones, Morgan Schooley and Isis Cunningham served as the Athletic Leadership Council's Victory Day Committee. The three happen to be the council's president, vice president and treasurer.
Jones, a golf and tennis player, said he witnessed his classmates bringing people together through sports and using athletics as an avenue to give students a great experience.
"For me, being here with my friends, it's fun," Jones said. "A lot of times kids can take for granted that they can play sports. Being able to spread entertainment and joy in these kids, it really makes it worthwhile."
Friday was the second Victory Day at the South St. Augustine school.
Former Nease football coach Tim Krause instituted a Victory Day in 2016 as a way to expand the horizons of the Panthers football players and provide an opportunity for local students to have a field day.
Menendez officials attended the third Victory Day in January 2019. Their aim was to have a similar event, but focused on South St. Johns County schools and broaden the drills and activities beyond a football focus.
When Menendez hosted its first Victory Day in March 2019, there were eight stations of activities. Friday, there were 10.
Students had an opportunity to play baseball by hitting a cantaloupe-sized beach ball with a PVC pipe or plastic bat. Others had an opportunity to put on shoulder pads and a Menendez football helmet. Elsewhere, students had an opportunity to score a penalty kick against a goalkeeper from Menendez's boys soccer team.
The activity that elicited the biggest smiles is something Ryan Schiavone dubbed "Tackle the Quarterback." Schiavone, a co-captain of the Falcons football team, showed students how to shed a block and tackle a dummy that was five yards away.
That Menendez quarterback King Benford was the one holding up the dummy, and energizing every student who brought it to the ground, was an added bonus.
The combination of athletics in the morning, pizza for lunch and a trophy to take home elicited countless smiles from the students who participated.
Friday's Victory Day was capped off by each school scoring a touchdown. Students darted, bobbed and weaved through a 25-yard maze of Menendez athletes before finding the pylon and celebrating with their classmates.
"A little bit of effort goes a long way for a bunch of people," Cunningham said. "All these little things make their day and their whole year. I was talking to people in our special needs program at (Menendez on Thursday) about Victory Day. I said 'Are you excited for Victory Day (Friday) and they got really excited. They still remembered it and were happy to come back."