Local News

A Special Day for Special Athletes at CSUF

On Friday, May 3rd, the 34th annual Goodwill of Orange County Faley Special Games, Orange County’s largest non-competitive, inclusive sporting event for athletes with developmental and intellectual disabilities, returned to Cal State Fullerton. Founded on the principals of volunteerism and community spirit, the Special Games, hosted at the university in memory of Kathleen E. & Jack Faley, brought together thousands of athletes, families and volunteers for a day of fun, friendship and sports. 

According to the CSUF Special Games website, the event was the brainchild of three ambitious Cal State Fullerton students. “The whole Faley Family has been involved in the Special Games since they were created in 1986,” said Dan Faley. Under pressure to complete a challenging class project for a communications class in mass marketing and PR for a non-profit, Dan Faley, Lisa Whaley, and Tom Bohen decided to create an on-campus event for developmentally disabled and special-needs students from local schools to make new memories through a day of sports, food, ribbons, Disneyland characters, live entertainment and other activities. 

However, the CSUF creators wanted their event to be different from other Special Games events – they wanted one volunteer for each participating student. So, on an April morning in 1986, family, friends, CSUF football and basketball players, among other university students, showed up and the Cal State Fullerton Special Games were born. The Goodwill of Orange County Faley Special Games still uses the “buddy system,” where special athletes of all ages are paired with volunteer “buddies” from local high schools that stick together throughout the day’s outdoor activities.

For more than thirty years, the Special Games have given participants, their families and volunteers an extraordinary and unforgettable experience. According to the CSUF Special Games website, “the key to this event has always been – and always will be – the volunteers.” One of the key volunteers that first year was Kathleen E. Faley. Sadly, Kathleen was killed the following year in a car accident. The event was renamed a year later in her honor. “In 2015, Jack M. Faley, our patriarch and architect of the growth of the Special Games was added in memoriam,” said Dan Faley.    

In 2016, Goodwill of Orange County and CSUF teamed up to expand and continue the Cal State Fullerton Special Games, Kathleen E. & Jack Faley Memorial, renaming the event Goodwill of Orange County Faley Special Games. 

There’s a saying that “without a seed a tree cannot grow,” and that’s certainly the case with the Special Games. The event is not only a family affair where the entire Faley family turns out to help, but a community event as well. “This year, we are excited to have more than 2,500 special athletes and more than 4,000 volunteers,” said Emma Engelage via email. “From 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., the athletics field transforms into an outdoor sports emporium with games including football throw, basketball, bean bag toss, volleyball, Frisbee toss, whiffle ball and more. Participants and their families can also enjoy live music, balloon animals, on-site police squad cars and fire trucks, lunch and more.”

During the games, the fields are filled with special athletes, their friends and families, volunteers, vendors, and many others, but when I arrived at one o’clock, most of the activities had already wrapped up for the day, even though it was not scheduled to end for another hour. Rows of buses were pulling up to pick up hordes of high school students. I followed the event signs, walked underneath an archway of colorful balloons and found a field where tents with red and white striped awnings were set up. A band was still playing and people were congregating in the shade underneath the tents, talking to one another. Many of the children who hadn’t left yet were dancing to the band or petting dogs walked around by volunteers in red shirts.  

“We start setting up the Special Games on the afternoon of the day before,” said Dan Faley. “Our vendors, suppliers and amazing setup volunteers meet onsite at CSUF about 2pm at the athletic fields, and we all work together until the setup is complete. It usually takes between 6 to 8 hours. Our volunteers are great and many of them come back year after year from schools, businesses, churches and organizations that have been supporting us for the last 34 years.”

“Most of our participants come from schools and organizations that have been attending our Special Games for decades,” Faley added. “New individual participants and new schools or organizations can sign up on our website or call our administrative partners at Desantis Management Group.”

The games have always been a grassroots effort with all donations going directly to support the event for the benefit of special children in Orange County. Throughout its history and always looking to the future, the Special Games remain focused on fostering social development and activity for athletes with developmental disabilities. This is an absolutely amazing effort, and if I attend next year, I’ll be sure arrive early. 

I’ve fallen a bit behind on creating videos to accompany my column due to a busy college semester, but I will be posting the video for this column and the previous wildflower article within the next few weeks. You will be able to view them by visiting the Observer website and clicking the tab labeled “Local.” Underneath that tab, click on “Emerson Little YouTube Channel,” which should take you directly to my page. 

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