The 2019 Monterey County School Games had nearly everything: 700+ students in special and general education; a variety of inclusive track and field competitions, football drills and activities; law enforcement supporters; and even a live radio broadcast.
Yet there was a piece missing for many students and staff at the annual event.
Daniel Lizarraga, a 12-year member of the special education department for Monterey Peninsula Unified School District (MPUSD), tragically passed away last summer.
“Danny's presence will never be matched,” said Ivan Mejia, a fellow special education teacher and friend at MPUSD. “Danny was a very charismatic individual whose radiance made a positive impact on many students. His positive attitude and ability to make everybody's day better simply with a smile will never be forgotten.”
Described as a kindhearted and patient man, “Mr. Danny” was an avid supporter of Special Olympics and connected with each of his students individually to bring out their best.
Lizarraga was honored prior to the Monterey County School Games during the Opening Ceremony, where friends, former students, coworkers and family members gathered in front of the massive crowd to share how much he meant to them.
“The moment for me was extremely important and surreal,” said Mejia, who delivered a heartfelt speech in English and Spanish. “As I delivered my speech, I wanted to make sure that I spoke as clearly as possible in order to have as many people understand the importance and impact that Danny had on many peoples' lives. As I think back at the event, I remember seeing Danny's family and friends who were on the field filled with multiple emotions. Some people were crying and others were smiling. I also thought of the love that we all had and continue to have for Danny.”
In addition to Mejia’s address during the tribute, a $500 donation was presented to Special Olympics in Lizarraga’s name; and Special Olympics’ staff honored the family with a certificate of appreciation in recognition of his true spirit and support for the organization.
“As I look at the mission statement provided on the Special Olympics' website, Danny is one of few people who is able to embody each and every one of those characteristics,” said Mejia. “Danny will continue to be a positive influence on all of us even though he is no longer with us. His memory will never be forgotten.”