Mater Dei, like many other Orange County high schools, prides itself on its athletic programs. However, the most important athletic competition for the private Catholic school in Santa Ana doesn't involve winning a Southern Section CIF or state title.
It takes place every spring on the Monarchs' track, where more than 400 students serve as volunteers at the Special Olympics track meet for developmentally disabled athletes.
"This event really teaches our students what determination, competition and personal fulfillment is all about," said Susan Diaz, Mater Dei English teacher, Special Olympics co-coordinator and parent of a disabled athlete. "It's really neat to see the athletes spending the day with non-disabled kids, who really work hard to help them have a great day."
Mater Dei has sponsored this track meet for the last three years, during which time more than 900 volunteers have been trained. The event is recognized by the Orange County Special Olympics and the Kennedy Foundation. Mater Dei was recently awarded the California Special Olympic Distinguished Volunteer Service award as the outstanding school for 1987-88.
"As far as we know, we are the only high school which exclusively puts on a Special Olympics meet," said Becky Allec, Mater Dei girls' athletic director and Special Olympic co-coordinator. "We require all of the volunteers to go to a three-hour training session to learn their job for the day and to become sensitive to these special kids' needs."
Volunteers consist primarily of Mater Dei students, but every year the number of volunteer parents, alumni and faculty increases. Volunteers arrive at 7 a.m. the day of the track meet, which usually takes place on the third Saturday in March. They are given such jobs as huggers, runners, recorders, team parents, refreshment servers and ribbon workers.
The meet begans at 9 a.m. with a parade led by the Mater Dei marching band. It is followed by a group of disabled Girl Scouts, the athletes themselves and Disneyland's Mickey and Minnie Mouse.
"After the opening ceremony, the national anthem was sung by Jay White, 29, a Special Olympic athlete, and then we let off 1,000 balloons to show the beginning of the games," Allec said. "We try to make it as much like the real Olympics as possible."
But the real story is what goes on during the competition. The student volunteers quickly befriend and often become emotionally attached to the athletes they are assigned to help. They learn that the handicapped are people with the same feelings and emotions as anyone else.
"For many students, this is the first time they have really been around mentally handicapped persons," Diaz said. "They all end up enjoying the day, and we have more kids signing up every year to help again."
Bruce Rollinson, Mater Dei history teacher, runs the day's events. There are wheelchair events as well as running events and long jumps. The athletes, aged from 6 to 60, are from the county.
"It really puts things in perspective and makes our problems seem so small to see these handicapped youngsters and adults compete," Rollinson said. "Some of them can really run quick, too."
Mater Dei student volunteers had many reactions to their day's involvement.
"It was totally fun. I loved the way the athletes love each other," said junior Kristy Atkins, 16.
Junior Dylan Ridgdon, 16, said: "It really is a very educational experience. I've learned a lot about how lucky I am and to be more unselfish."
Said senior Chris Keller, 18: "I like to see people who don't get a chance to go out and around and do things that normal kids take for granted."
Both the parents of the athletes and the competitors themselves seemed to be impressed with the school's effort to make the meet memorable.
Andrea Moffet, 15, a Special Olympics athlete from Hawes School in Huntington Beach, was awarded a ribbon. "I won first place in the 220," she yelled, running to btell her mother.
"I like the Special Olympics meet because it is very well organized," said Andrea's mother, Candice Moffet. "I think the Mater Dei volunteers are terrific and well-trained."
Said parent Eleanor White: "My son, Jay, 29, really looks forward to this meet because there is a one-on-one relationship with the athlete and the volunteer. He looks forward to this all year. He just loves Mater Dei."
Many of the students receive 10 hours of community-service credit for volunteering at the meet. As part of their graduation requirement, Mater Dei students are required to put in 80 service hours.
"I started out just doing this for service hours and a free lunch," said junior Jim Fillipan, 16, "but I really learned to appreciate these kids and I enjoy helping them earn their awards. They are so proud of themselves when they win. I plan to help again next year."
Some of the Mater Dei students were designated as leaders and spent extra time planning the meet, organizing the day's events and training others.
Junior Jason Blair, 16, was one of the leaders. "I was in charge of the awards," he said. "It was so great to see their faces when they stepped up to get their ribbons."
Diane O'Bitz is the mother of Debbie, a 17-year-old mentally disabled participant.
"Most parents don't realize what a day like this means to a handicapped kid," O'Bitz said. "It's more than getting a T-shirt, a ribbon and a lunch, although my daughter loves those. It's a chance for her to be like any other teen-ager and be proud of achieving something."
Father John Weling, Mater Dei principal, said: "We've heard a lot of talk this year about Mater Dei being the greatest show on earth."
And the talk was put into loving action during the Special Olympics.
"I get a tremendous amount of reward seeing the determination of the young athletic participants and the enthusiasm and spirit shown by the students who work at it," Rollinson said. "It is a completely fulfilling and rewarding day."