Student athletes from eight area elementary and middle schools laced up their soccer shoes Tuesday morning for Northern Santa Barbara County Special Olympics' 2017 Elementary School Games.

Held at Minami Park, the annual event, which featured a number of soccer-oriented events, is designed to allow athletes with varying degrees of disability to showcase their skills and talents.

"We want to field more Special Olympians to join our traditional program and just spread the mission of the Special Olympics," said Nicolas Chavez, operations director with the Northern Santa Barbara County Special Olympics. 

Teachers, instructional aides and volunteers from Hancock College and the Kiwanis Club of Santa Maria, Noontime, turned out to staff the event, which drew more than 250 students. Kristy Soriano, a longtime Special Olympian and global ambassador for the cause, said she participated in Tuesday morning's games to raise awareness about Special Olympics among schoolchildren.

"They didn't have the Elementary School Games when I was younger," she said, adding that she has been involved with Special Olympics since 9 years old. "I have a lot of fun doing these sports, and I hope they do, too."

A fan of tennis, bowling and bocce ball, Soriano credits Special Olympics with helping expand her social life.

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"It gave me more [opportunities to socialize] and helps me make friends within our region and across the state," she said. Northern Santa Barbara County's Special Olympics program is part of the larger Southern California Special Olympics organization, which spans from San Luis Obispo to San Diego counties. 

As students ran through an obstacle course, demonstrated their ball handling skills and kicking ability, Ellie Mora watched her 13-year-old son participate in a 7-on-7 soccer scrimmage match at the back of the field. Mora, who has a son with autism who often struggles in uncontrolled situations with multiple people, said she enjoyed Thursday's event because it gave them both an opportunity to socialize in a controlled environment.

"I think it's important for schools to have more events like this," she said. "It's a bit like networking for us — they're a great way for children and their parents to build relationships within the special needs community in a controlled, predictable environment."

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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Education Reporter

Santa Maria Times reporter Mathew Burciaga covers education for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.