A busload of individuals with various disabilities unloaded into parking lot S13 on Oct. 22, just in view of the University of Georgia football team practicing at Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall. Whether rolling in a wheelchair or walking, they moved together and interacted like a family — laughing, wearing UGA gear and pocketing black Sharpies in anticipation of meeting UGA players and getting their autographs.
The group, led to the practice by the organization Extra Special People, or ESP, was greeted by the smiles of dozens of the event’s volunteers. People with Down syndrome hugged every friend within arm’s length. People with autism greeted every familiar face with genuine smiles.
Sometimes their disabilities affect their appearance. Sometimes their disabilities slow them down.
But Extra Special People doesn’t care about their disabilities. It cares about their abilities.
“It’s great, ESP is fun,” said Sam Adams, a 25-year-old participant with Down syndrome. “I meet different friends, I have a good time.”
Extra Special People is a Watkinsville-based nonprofit organization that hosts events and provides a community for people with developmental disabilities such as cerebral palsy, Asperger’s syndrome and Angelman syndrome. Serving roughly 300 families from eight counties including Athens-Clarke, the organization holds events such as a 5K race, a golf tournament and skydiving.
Extra Special People was founded in 1986 by Martha Wyllie, a woman who wanted to offer programs for “people with different abilities,” according to the organization’s website. The camp started with a $20,000 budget and now raises at least $650,000 annually, with about $120,000 coming from its Big Hearts Pageant in February, according to Joan Baird, a member of the organization’s board of directors.
The Oct. 22 event was a part of ESP 360, the organization’s year-round program where special needs people between 4 and 45 years old come together to play sports, dance, paint, learn karate and do other activities after school.
“It’s a bunch of participants who get to hang out where their disabilities don’t matter. We really try to focus on what their abilities are,” said Jake Sapp, program operations coordinator for Extra Special People. “It’s just a community where we’re celebrating friendship.”
One 17-year-old summer counselor for Extra Special People, Tyler Elliott, said he has been around the organization for five years because his younger brother Clete has tuberous sclerosis complex, a rare disorder that causes tumors to grow on vital organs.
“They had to do brain surgeries on him as a child and so part of his brain is missing,” Elliott said. “He’s about 16, but he acts like maybe a 12-year-old.”
Elliott said even though his brother requires help with physical tasks such as getting dressed and pouring bowls of cereal, he never lets his disability slow him down — especially while at Extra Special People events.
“I love ESP because I have seen the joy that it brings to actual campers — when my brother comes home, so excited about the friends he’s made, so excited about the events he’s done,” Elliott said. “Just the littlest things make him happy.”
As a volunteer at the event, Elliott partnered with Michael Webb, an Extra Special People member who is in a wheelchair because he has cerebral palsy. Elliott calls Webb “Dirty Mike” because he’s “so fresh and so clean that he’s dirty.”
After an hour and a half of waiting, the moment arrived where practice ended and Extra Special People participants rushed the field to meet Mark Richt, Brice Ramsey and other members of the team. After receiving multiple players’ signatures on his red shirt, Webb met and took a picture with Ramsey.
Players danced with participants, tossed footballs around with them, greeted everyone with a smile and handshake and gave participants their gloves and sweatbands. An 11-year-old participant, Marc Pizza, stood up to Georgia’s 6-foot-3, 232-pound outside linebacker, Shaun McGee, tackling him and sitting on top of him after he toppled McGee. Pizza then asked McGee to stand up and do it over again. The crowd he amassed cheered every time.
“They think we’re making their day, but really they’re making our day,” said Thomas Pritchard, a UGA placekicker. “Seeing how happy we make these kids, you can really see it on their faces and they do the same to us seeing their faces. I love it.”