It was difficult to tell who was having the most fun when Beaufort County's Special Olympics bowling tournament began at Station 300 in Bluffton.
The 140 participating students from 11 schools were full of smiles and excitement, having been greeted by cheerleaders and escorted by other students to tables at various lanes.
Then there were the adults who almost equaled the students in number. Not only were many parents, teachers and school staff members on hand but there were also volunteers, including more students, the Sun City Lions Club, St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church Knights of Columbus, Children's Relief Fund and troops from the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island.
The noise level rose as the starting time neared, and once fifth graders Rachel Schroeder and Edie Darnell sang the National Anthem, there was no holding back the joy of the athletes or their fans.
"Our Special Olympics is not a once-a-year thing," said Gregory McCord, who is in charge of student services for Beaufort County. "We have many sporting events throughout the school year. The main focus is to make sure all of our student athletes belong. The atmosphere today is the same as it would be at any other athletic event."
The abundance of cheerleaders proved that. Pompoms were visible at every lane and once the games got rolling, fifth grader Sandy Phillips began announcing the names of players as they finished games.
Mixing athletes and fellow students is the goal of Project Unify, a program started at Bluffton High School.
"The aim is to get regular education students integrated with the special education students," said Lisa Lucas, a teacher a Bluffton high. "All of the sports integrate all of the students. I feel really strong that we do a lot of activities and the whole school is involved."
At the prize table, volunteers from the Lions and Knights of Columbus handed out donated T-shirts and small games.
There were about 20 Lions volunteers out of the 75-member chapter, headed by Judy Elias.
"I like to help and I believe in a hands-on approach," she said as she helped one youngster and his volunteer with prizes.
Sitting at a table near lane eight was Ron Wilson who has been a Lion for nearly 50 years.
"You get more out of it than you put in it, just from the kids alone," he said. "I've been fortunate to be president of Lions-sponsored camps for the deaf and for the blind. My paycheck is the happiness of the kids."
Much of the credit for the event goes to the Children's Relief Fund, which raises money for all the programs that help disabled children from Hilton Head to Beaufort.
Rose Fotia founded the all-volunteer organization 22 years ago. While seeking assistance in caring for her own special needs child, Fotia discovered that there were no such local programs.
The Children's Relief Fund supports Special Olympics, a surf camp for autistic children, team camps and summer camp challenge programs at Red Cedar Elementary School. The Children's Relief Fund will also often pay for therapy and equipment for individual children.
Fotia said 98 percent of the funds donated go directly to local programs with the remainder covering postage and other administrative costs, but no salaries. The bowling tournament is special to Fotia.
"At Christmastime, I love to come to this because they are so happy," she said. "It's awesome."