MATTOON - Mario Thomas was having the time of his life as a one-man cheerleading squad during the Special Olympics Family Festival (SOFF).
"Kick it to the moon! Kick it to the moon! We need a new crater in the moon!" he yelled out as one of the Special Olympians lined up for a soccer ball kicking game, one of many festival venues on the campus of Lake Land College.
Each contestant was getting a high five from Thomas, a Mattoon resident, as they picked up a ribbon from co-volunteer Monica Ganshirt, an Eastern Illinois University special education major from Arlington Heights.
"I'm having a great time out here!" said Thomas, probably the understatement of festival day. "I have viewed Special Olympics over the years but this is the first time I've volunteered. I'm loving it."
Ganshirt said Thomas, a non-student volunteer, was getting her fired up, too, for her first time at the family festival - as a college student she has helped with the spring Special Olympics at Eastern Illinois University.
"I just like seeing them happy and hearing all he's saying today," Ganshirt said.
Lakeview College of Nursing students Andrea Fabiano and Jessica Owen were all smiles as they worked as Portal-potty attendants at one corner of the festival perimeter. They were present to ensure the safety of the developmentally disabled participants and their escorts, mostly college students. They were having friendly conversations with many people as the morning progressed.
"It's actually a lot of fun. We're doing this for our clinical requirements for one class. This is part of interacting with people," said Owen, a Lincoln native.
The future nurses realize how events like the SOFF provide extra benefits to the disabled and their families.
"I think it's very beneficial to them. They can come here and not have much to worry about for having some fun," said Fabiano, a Lakeview student from Rockford.
Amy Moran, chairwoman of the SOFF committee, said bringing so many different people together to help Special Olympics produces a lot of energy. On average, the festival draws about 1,000 Eastern students and 200 from Lake Land to complete various volunteer tasks.
The theme of this year's SOFF was Christmas with the annual festival parade on the Lake Land campus featuring elves and even Santa Claus.
"The Christmas theme is something our participants can easily relate to. And they love Santa Claus," Moran said.
The day of the festival is when the community, through Consolidated Communications and other supporters, gives a gift to the disabled. Scott Lensink, president of Lake Land College, takes pride in the way his college comes together to host the festival with so much community support.
"One of the things I like about the festival is the total community involvement where everybody pulls together," Lensink said after the opening ceremonies and parade on the northwest corner of the campus.
EIU President Bill Perry was looking over a crowd of volunteers that includes hundreds of his students. He said the family festival as well as the Special Olympics competitions each May at O'Brien Stadium demonstrate how a university can serve the surrounding community, including Lake Land College.
"Service is an important emphasis for our students at Eastern. And this event is another way our campuses can come together," Perry said.
Both college presidents were headed to join in some of the fun and games inside and around the tents. Lensink pointed out he has only one restriction on Perry's involvement during festival day.
"I just ask Bill not to go to the karaoke tent," Lensink said, producing a burst of laughter from Perry.
Jay Hopper of Mattoon has been involved in the SOFF for 16 years and grinned as he heard Thomas cheering on the soccer kickers nearby. He has watched many rookie volunteers go from anxiety to excitement through the years as they realize how much fun they can have during the day.
"It's like when you're a kid and you have your first piece of candy and then you're hooked on it. I think people enjoy seeing how people can appreciate simple things so much. And by the end of the day you realize what they've done for you," Hopper said.
Thomas said he will be penciling the next SOFF into his calendar and many more.
"This is the beginning of many times coming here for me," he said.
Contact Herb Meeker at email@example.com or 238-6869.