A Million Smiles - Day of Champions 2024


“It’s the day of a million smiles,” Karen Schoessel announced on May 29, 2024, with a big smile of her own. She seemed to be everywhere at once, overseeing an ocean of military, community, family, and student volunteers whose most important job is to uplift, celebrate, and encourage participants, cheering them on their way. It’s hectic each year, but she loves it! 

The Day of Champions, a tradition 

The Day of Champions, hosted by the North Thurston Kiwanis Club of North Thurston, a track-and-field style tradition. This year they had 359 young people from 20 schools and 38 classes in North Thurston School District, living with a variety of learning challenges and health issues. Karen has been involved for 18 years but has the enthusiasm of a first timer. “It used to be in just one location with many school districts involved,” she explained, “but now, for the second year, several school districts have their own events, and we are expanding to other counties, thanks to all the donors and volunteers.  Some of the new venues include Yelm, Shelton, Tumwater, Steilacoom and even Bellevue, which is having a huge event!” She went on to explain that the expansion gives the participants more room on the field and increases access to many more students. 

The beginning 

The Day of Champions was originally designed in 2003 by Special Education teacher Erich Weight as a special day for students who rarely have an opportunity to shine. He still teaches Special Education at North Thurston High School (NTHS), and Karen was pleased to share the microphone with him at the event. Twenty-plus years later, it is still a day of success and fun with field and track activities resulting in big smiles and high-fives. It includes 16 highly modified activity stations, each designed to bring joy and a sense of achievement to the participants. These activities include a javelin toss with pool noodles, bowling with giant air-filled balls and pins, an obstacle course, the "big ball,” Frisbee toss, and many more. 

From the moment they arrive and step off their school buses, kids from kindergarten through high school are enveloped in a warm and supportive atmosphere. They are greeted by a big yellow bear (Booker To Bear), cheerleading squads hopping with pom-poms, and the North Thurston High School Band performing. As they walk to South Sound Stadium, they are cheered on by a path lined with clapping fans, many of whom are soldiers from JBLM. The kids proceed to South Sound Stadium, where each school holds a sign, and marches together in a parade around the track, creating a sense of unity and celebration. It was this writer’s first time attending, and the joy of it all, especially the arrival, brought tears to my eyes. The support and cheers from the stadium included, in part, an enthusiastic audience of rotating North Thurston High School students (on their lunch breaks), further enhancing the atmosphere of the event.  

Kids arrive with teachers, “paras,” and family – parents, siblings, and grandparents. In the hard-copy program, 43 individuals and groups were recognized, in addition to the sponsors who included: Fraser Consulting, Bobby Rocha RLTW Go Army, Karen Schoessel, Molina Health Care , Lynn M. Neeley, Twin Star Credit Union, City of Lacey, TH AC CH JS TR DS, Ironseele, North Thurston Public Schools, K. Kids Kiwanis, Bob & Sherry Houser, South Sound Reading Foundation, and Kiwanis Club of Thurston County.  

This writer visited with Jete Marcus, a staffer at the Washington State Employees Credit Union (WSECU), who was with her husband, Victor, and son, Marcus. “WSECU allows each employee eight hours of paid time per year to volunteer with any non-profit. It is so great that I can volunteer at this event and be here with my own kid!” 

All participants received a free book from South Sound Reading Foundation (SSRF), a medal, and a Day of Champions t-shirt. (Volunteers received a box lunch and t-shirt.) Several nonprofits sponsored tables and the NTHS Booster Club and volunteer high school band students ran a concession stand to benefit the band. To finish off the day, there was a short stint of free-form dancing until the school buses arrived.  

Get involved with this worthy endeavor with a donation or volunteer work. To help this annual event flourish locally and expand to other counties in the state, contact:  


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here