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New Richmond hosts successful Friendship Games event

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When the Friendship Games started in Amery several years ago, no one knew there would be as much interest as there was.

What started as a smaller event with a few schools has grown into a three-county event with more the nine schools attending. This year, New Richmond played host.

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"Our facilities are so nice," said Shelli Fehrman, co-chairwoman of the event and special service teacher at New Richmond Middle School. "It's really accessible for the kids and for those in wheelchairs ... there's so much space and the entire track area is paved."

Unlike the Special Olympics with specific sporting events, the Friendship Games is an all-day track and field event designed for all special services students - those with severe disabilities and those without.

In addition to the track and field events, volunteers run various carnival events and games, including pick-a-duck, a fish pond and the operation of a bounce house. At each event students are also awarded prizes.

The New Richmond event went so well that event organizers might consider hosting the event on an annual basis, Fehrman said.

"It's usually on a rotating basis but no one hosted it last year and the ball kind of got dropped," she said.

Fehrman said she started gathering interest for the games in January by sending emails to neighboring schools. In the end, nine schools and about 200 kids made the trip to New Richmond on May 18.

The day overlapped with New Richmond High School's Service Learning Day, something Fehrman considers a blessing, as about 100 high schoolers were assigned to work as volunteers at the Friendship Games event.

"Thank God for Service Learning Day," Fehrman said. "Those high school kids did a fantastic job. Without their help it would've been really difficult."

Fehrman said a committee might be organized in the future to include representatives of the participating schools.

"The committee could do the planning and dish out responsibilities... that might make it a little easier," she said.

Because of the success, any future Friendship Games at NRHS will likely be hosted in conjunction with Service Learning Day, Fehrman said.

"I've already been in talks with Trish Moberg (who runs Service Learning Day) about how we can expand the students' involvement," she said.

Those plans could include things like a petting zoo put on by the New Richmond FFA chapter, Fehrman said.

Events like a potential petting zoo, or any of the carnival games that were at the 2012 event, are really helpful for the downtime, she said.

"At past events there's been a lot of sitting around between events," Fehrman said. "Free time is hard for (the students) to keep occupied."

Some of the most popular events on Friday included cookie decorating.

"But even with that there's so much planning," Fehrman said. "We had to make sure we had gluten-free cookies and had to be really careful about food allergies."

Events were organized based on past events, she said.

"We got a list from past events and modified some of them so that they worked better for the students," she said.

For example, croquet handles were extended so those in wheelchairs could use them, bowling ramps were incorporated into the soccer kick for those students who couldn't physically kick the balls, golf balls were replaced with softball-sized balls and students who wanted to participate in the pick-a-duck game were given the option to use a fishing net.

"We even had a 'running' event for the students in chairs," she said.

Fehrman said she's in the process of getting feedback from the participating schools in hopes of bettering future events.

"I've gotten some positive feedback from a few of the schools already," she said. "Most of those schools are schools who have hosted it before and know how hard it is... Now that we have one done, I'd like to think it'll be easier if we do more."

Students from Clayton, Clear Lake, Ellsworth, Hudson, New Richmond, Osceola, River Falls, St. Croix Central and St. Croix Falls participated in the event. Other school districts, including Amery and Somerset, expressed interest but had a conflict with the date, Fehrman said.

"We're hoping they can come next year," she said. "I think the number of students could've easily doubled with those other schools."

Fehrman said next year's goal is to better market the event, by getting articles in the newspaper and the district newsletter.

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