Friends on the field

AIKEN --- Five-year-old Marquaveous Thurmond had his double date for Friday set up months ago.


It started with letters from the two older girls who wanted to know the Busbee Elementary pupil's favorite color and favorite foods.

After months of exchanging pictures and information, Marquaveous finally met his "girlfriends," North Augusta High School students Olivia Melton and Morgan Fletcher.

All Marquaveous could remember was he would have two girls wrapped around his finger Friday at the Area 15 Special Olympics.

The girls volunteered for a mentor program that pairs North Augusta students with special education students.

Throughout the year, the volunteers write letters and send pictures to familiarize themselves with their buddy for the Special Olympics.

"He smiled and grabbed our hands and we started asking him questions," Olivia said. "And we got ice cream, his favorite."

In between races and obstacle courses, the girls danced, painted and made crafts with Marquaveous.

The Area 15 Special Olympics brings together about 500 athletes from Aiken, Edgefield and Saluda counties.

Though the day is about the athletes, coordinator Emily Green said the hundreds of volunteers are also essential.

"I don't know what we would do without them," Ms. Green said.

Volunteers are paired 2-to-1 or 1-to-1 with athletes.

Schools such as Paul Knox Middle pair eighth grade Gifted & Talented students with special education pupils at the school, and they have weekly interactions with one another.

Other students, including Aiken High senior Samantha Newman, met her buddy Emily Claire Waters, 17, for the first time on game day.

"It's just a lot of fun because you're with them all day to go to their races, or to get food with them," Samantha said.

Younger volunteers look forward to being paired with an athlete for several years until they graduate.

"I heard last year that it was a life-changing experience, and it is when you see how excited they get," said Taylor Pinson, 15, who is paired with Busbee Elementary pupil Melvin Johnson, 3. "If he's here next year, I get him again."

Reach Julia Sellers at (706) 823-3424 or