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Benet football players ditch the pads, put smiles on special ed students

LISLE – As a Benet Academy football player jumped in a bounce house, his smile was reflected on the face of the child in his arms.

The Benet Academy sophomore and varsity football teams hosted the second annual Benet Football Field Day on Friday for students in the School Association for Special Education in DuPage County’s summer school program.

About 75 SASED staff members, 90 football players, 45 football parent volunteers and several football coaches gathered on the grounds of Southeast Alternative School in Naperville to put on the event for the second year.

“It’s a great day of memories,” said Lisle resident Mary Runger, creator and coordinator of the event. “Part of the whole idea is to get the seed planted to consider ways to give back. Even in preparing for the football season we take a chance to recognize that.”

About 122 SASED students ages 3 to 18 participated in the two-hour event, which featured 15 different activity stations. Activities included an inflatable bounce house, bubbles, water balloons, temporary tattoos, face painting, crafts and karaoke.

Students were also able to pose with football players in a photo booth and participate in football practice drills. 

“The [SASED] students open up and blossom because the enthusiasm from the Benet football players encourages them to do more than they think they could and the football players blossom because they are carrying kids in their arms and coloring and holding hands – things they don’t do often,” Runger said. “It’s such a growing experience for everyone.” 

Runger said families of Benet football players not only helped plan the event, but also made it possible by providing donations. 

SASED is a cooperative of 18 school districts that provide services to 6,442 students with disabilities in DuPage County, according to 

Runger was inspired to launch the event last year in an effort to bridge the gap between volunteers and benefactors.

When the football players would volunteer, Runger said, they would not see how their work helped others. But with Field Day, they would come face-to-face with their beneficiaries. She credits Benet football coach and SASED teacher Bill Benjamin for inspiring her idea to unfold. 

Rich Laren, a program administrator for SASED, said both SASED students and Benet football players benefitted from the event. 

“The Benet students really step up to the plate and work well with the students,” Laren said. “My students talk about [Field Day] as the ‘best day ever in summer school,’ and some have been going to summer school for 15 years.”

In addition to participating in fun events, SASED students in the summer program continue to work on the reading, math and socialization skills that they practice during the school year, Laren said. 

SASED students received a T-shirt at Field Day, and will be able to come with family members and a guest to Benet Academy’s home opening football game for no charge. 

In addition to being impacted individually, the football players felt their team bonds were strengthened by the event, according to Nick Surges, who will be a senior at Benet Academy and is also one of the captains on the varsity football team. He participated in Field Day for the second time this year. 

“The kids are truly an inspiration,” Surges said. “The amount of courage and perseverance and what they deal with every day truly opens your eyes that we are fortunate and blessed to live the life we do.”

Based on his experience with the event, Surges encourages others to volunteer. 

“I became a stronger and more courageous person from those kids,” Surges said. “Really change your life and put yourself out there and help out those less fortunate than you. It does change lives and makes you a better person.”

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