GIRARD — Special Olympics athletes had the opportunity Tuesday to learn about fishing and area wildlife at an event kicking off Special Olympics Kansas’s Outdoor Skills program at the Southeast Kansas Education Service Center at Greenbush west of Girard.

“Our whole thing is ensuring equal educational opportunities for all,” said Doug Graham, public relations manager for Greenbush, “and so we exist to provide these kinds of opportunities that otherwise are just impossible for especially smaller districts around here.”

The Tuesday event was hosted in partnership with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism (KDWPT) and was also made possible by grants from the Community Foundation of Southeast Kansas and from Special Olympics North America. Erin Fletcher, director of grants and development for Special Olympics Kansas, played a key role in organizing the trip, which involved 18 Special Olympics athlete participants from Pittsburg, Girard and Columbus schools. To conclude the event, KDWPT provided each athlete with a tackle box and a rod and reel.

Emily Roth, camp and enrichment coordinator at Greenbush, said the idea for Tuesday’s fishing and wildlife-focused event originated with another Special Olympics Kansas trip to Greenbush last school year.

“They came out to our facilities for a teambuilding and ropes course event, and they saw that we had a lot of different ecosystems and a lot of different outdoor space that they could use, so Erin Fletcher found and wrote a grant for special education kiddos to come outside and learn some outdoor skills, a new way to be active, and so that’s kind of Greenbush’s role,” Roth said. “We’re out here, we’re allowing kids to go fishing, to go hiking, but also to recognize and understand what they are seeing when they are fishing and hiking. What kinds of fish are they catching? What kind of native grasses are out here and what animals might they find? So Greenbush is here really as a facility for them to use.”

Although Special Olympics Kansas would like to make the fishing and wildlife trip to Greenbush an annual event, it is new this year, Fletcher said, and it is different from anything being done in other states.

“We heard from families and caregivers that they wanted to be outside more, they wanted to have the opportunities for the athletes to get outside and do different types of things outside,” she said, “and so then we also heard from Wildlife and Parks that they are looking to try to get more people outside, specifically in the parks and different things, so we decided to come together and launch what we call the Outdoor Skills program.”

Connor Ossowski, district fisheries biologist for the KDWPT, said Tuesday’s event provided opportunities for both classroom learning and outdoor activities.

“So today we took the athletes and we showed them how to tie knots, different types of fish, what lures to use for each fish, and then we went out and I taught them how to cast — and a lot of them knew how to cast already — but then we went out and fished and caught a lot of fish and had a fun time,” Ossowski said, adding that the event was a good way to educate students about outdoor activities available to them.

“Any way I can connect with the community and have them engage and participate and promote the fishing opportunities around Pittsburg is something that I’m really excited about,” he said.

Sydney Hale, horticulture and outdoor education coordinator at Greenbush, said the Special Olympics athletes also went on a hike and looked at five types of environments, including wetlands, ponds, woodlands, prairies, and agricultural areas.

“After we did the classroom portion of the presentation where the kids got to look at like the furs and the skulls and the tracks, we talked about how they can apply that to actually being out in nature and what to look for,” Hale said, “so we actually the hiked the trails, and we looked for tracks and scat and signs of animals that might actually be living here on the Greenbush campus.”

Special Olympics athletes saw signs of deer, possums, racoons, moles and beavers during Tuesday’s event, said Logan Martin, KDWPT district wildlife biologist for Crawford, Cherokee, Labette and Neosho counties. They also saw monarch butterflies.

“We had some fine mesh nets that let the kids kind of go through the wetlands and see what kind of invertebrates and stuff, the different things that they could find, and we found a lot of cool stuff,” Martin said.

Emma Lero, a Special Olympics athlete and junior at Girard High School who caught two fish on Tuesday, said she has been involved with Special Olympics for about seven years and previously participated in a fishing tournament in Pittsburg through the organization. She said she was excited to learn about area wildlife and to go hiking.

“Today has been a great day,” Lero said.