Surrounded by a horde of fans waving American flags hollering in support as their bus whizzed past, The Arc of Atlantic County gave their Special Olympics team a proper send off on Friday morning.

The event marked the beginning of the journey for the team of 45 athletes as well as 20 coaches, family members and chaperones,  to the Special Olympics site at The College of New Jersey. The competition runs from Friday through Sunday

Kathi Lentz, operations director for community service at The ARC, said that beyond the health benefits brought on by the physical activity, for participants the program is simply fun. 

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"They don't care what color their medal is, they just want to compete and have fun," she said. "Just to compete makes them happy."

As Lentz spoke, team members could be heard buzzing with excitement, passing American flags to one another that they would soon wave out of the bus windows. 

George Todd, 49, of Absecon, will be competing in both bowling and softball this weekend. He said his favorite part of the event is seeing the other athletes. 

"I am a pitcher," he said with a wide grin. 

But, the day's send off was also marked with sadness, as the softball team on which Todd competes is missing a player. Howard Bank, 41, recently died in his sleep, officials from The Arc said. 

Pinned to the shirts of the athletes was a small felt flower to honor Bank's memory.  The flower's petals are the colors of the the four Philadelphia sports teams--Bank's favorites. Lentz said his death was unexpected and grief counselors had to be brought in. 

Lentz said that the softball team's uniforms will also bear a small tribute to Bank, who has played on the team for about 15 years. 

"He could make a friend at every event," she said, adding that Bank was widely loved and news of his passing brought tears to many community members. 

"He just loved sports," she said with a smile. 

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Staff writer

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