The Yelm Community School’s Day of Champions Builds a Legacy of Celebrating Students in Special Education


All those who gathered at Yelm High School on the morning of June 1 won’t soon forget the experience that followed. The 2023 Day of Champions succeeded in its mission of celebrating and uplifting students in special education. This recurring track-and-field style event is made possible by countless hours of collaboration led by Yelm Community Schools (YCS). That collaborative spirit was on full display as students, parents, volunteers and faculty were brought together for a day filled with joy.

Students coming out of a school bus to a cheering crowd. Chalk on the sidewalk reads, 'Welcome'
When students arrive at the YCS Day of Champions they are greeted by a gauntlet of cheers and smiles. Students, cheerleaders, and service members help with this important task. Photo courtesy: Yelm Community Schools

Day of Champions History in Thurston County

The concept for Day of Champions blossomed under North Thurston Public Schools over 15 years ago, and Yelm was a part of that early emergence. Organizers aimed to uplift students in special education by creating a field day event that would highlight teamwork and camaraderie. It quickly became a beloved community fixture with momentum to include more schools. As that momentum continued, Yelm Community Schools decided to start its own branch of Day of Champions. The YCS Day of Champions is now hosted at Yelm High School and includes other schools from surrounding districts such as Rochester, Rainier and Tenino. The event has grown in scope and participation, and has gained recognition as a meaningful initiative. This year, Yelm played host to over 200 student participants and over 250 volunteers.

Shannon Powell, director of student support, has been involved with the Day of Champions vision for many years and is now a key part of the YCS organizing team. “The impact is shown by all the smiles,” shares Powell. “It’s a lot of fun when these kids get to be the star of the show. Not only that, but this event is a great example of what life will be like for these students in the future. People with all types of abilities working together to make it possible. Many of the volunteers for this event are general education students and community members. It’s amazing to see how everyone comes together.”

students in yellow walking along the track
It’s all smiles when students arrive and are cheered along their way from the parking lot to the stadium. It’s time to take the stage! Photo courtesy: Yelm Community Schools

Yelm Community Schools 2023 Day of Champions

When the first buses with participating students began to arrive, excited chatter filled the air. And as students finally stepped out of their buses onto the concrete, they were greeted by cheers and applause. A corridor of volunteers, cheerleaders and service members welcomed every group. Students were ushered to the stadium where canopies stood ready to house them. And as all those in attendance eagerly surveyed the stations set up around the stadium, one thing became clear. The 2023 Day of Champions had arrived!

Once the event was underway, groups began to cycle through different areas on the field. There was a little bit of everything: long jump, 50-yard dash, giant soccer, pool noodle tag and more. Many jubilant cheers could be heard, as well as some rare cries of frustration. Above all, the atmosphere was thick with collaborative conversation. Everyone was laughing and dancing by the end of the closing dance party at center field.

Students in yellow shirts playing games on a football field
Students participating in the Day of Champions partake in a variety of track-and-field style events that are set up all throughout the stadium. Competition can be a great way to make friends on a day like this one. Photo courtesy: Yelm Community Schools

Teri Melone, YCS director of communications, held a central role in helping this event run smoothly. Melone worked together with Shannon Powell, Brittany LaPalm and the entire organizing team to make sure all the boxes were checked.

“There are many moving pieces for an event like this,” Melone shares. “From student mentors to event sponsors, there’s a lot of teamwork that has to happen.” It’s inspiring to witness the eagerness from all parties that are involved. “We’re excited to help bring this momentum to more schools, and to show other districts that this is something they could be doing too.”

Bounty for Families and Tyson Foods Among Meaningful Community Partnerships

With a growing scope comes growing costs. Community partnerships and sponsorships are an important part of the YCS Day of Champions ecosystem. As a fiscal partner, Bounty for Families (BFF) helps with the costs. They are a nonprofit based in Yelm that works closely with programs to support local families.

a student in a black shirt smiling with his arms around two students in yellow shirts
Many students volunteer to be mentors and guides throughout the Day of Champions. It’s common to find fast friends here. Photo courtesy: Yelm Community Schools

“It takes a village, and the Yelm community has really embraced what we are doing,” says Mark Gosney, committee chair of the BFF Day of Champions. “Between Superintendent Wharton, Principal Cleveringa, and all the volunteers and sponsors, we have a really supportive group.”

It’s clear that Gosney cares a lot about this initiative and its mission. “I have a daughter who has attended this event since she was in elementary school. I took part in my first Day of Champions back in 2013 and it was so heartwarming,” he adds. “Seeing the kids greeted by a gauntlet of cheers still never fails to bring a tear to my eye.”

A new addition to the list of sponsors this year was Tyson Foods. A fortunate series of events led Yelm Community Schools to establish contact with Lenny Glinsky, Tyson’s K12 schools sales representative. “I couldn’t have been more excited to contribute to an important mission in a community that reminds me of the one I grew up in,” Glinsky shares. “It was amazing to see the way everyone worked together and the connections that came from it,” he says.

Yelm mascot and cheerleaders posing for a group photos with a bunch of students in yellow shirts
Students are organized into groups that take turns travelling between different event stations. If desired, anyone can photos with the Yelm mascot and cheerleaders! Photo courtesy: Yelm Community Schools

Glinsky and a top-notch team prepared food for participating students and volunteers alike. Future collaborations may also be in the works.

Yelm Community Schools would like to express their thanks to all the event sponsors, including:

  • Jeneva’s Heroes
  • Tenino PTSA
  • Twinstar Credit Union
  • Molina Healthcare
  • Sensory Toolhouse
  • Tad Stillwell Agency
  • Turner Automotive
  • Timberland Bank
  • Seattle Dental Arts
  • Denise Hendrickson
  • Dream Weavers Real Estate
  • Janelle Embrey, Edward Jones
  • Brent Conklin, Edward Jones
  • Pam Ferris, Edward Jones

The spirit of collaboration can be found on the ground floor. It’s on the field. It’s between kids of all ages and abilities. It’s between a whole stadium of people that are there to celebrate a group of students who deserve it. To learn more, visit the Yelm Community Schools website.


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