VALDOSTA -- About 10 a.m. Friday, several hundred local kids with wide eyes and nervous grins exited their buses, eager to meet their mentors and discover a place called Wild Adventures.

Each of them had been selected to participate in the United Way of Lowndes County's fourth annual Day of Caring event, which is about mentoring children for the day and showing them they are loved, respected, and cared about.

Seven-year-old James Powell's face lit up when he stepped off the bus and caught a glimpse of what the day had in store for him. A second grader at S.L. Mason Elementary School, Powell spent the entire day running from one side of the park to the other, riding every ride possible.

"I really liked the water rides," said Powell, just after discovering the wonderful world of Dippin' Dots ice cream. "I have had so much fun."

Powell left Wild Adventures that afternoon with a huge smile on his face. He had touched the hearts of his mentors, and they had obviously touched his. For Powell, one good day made a difference in his outlook on life.

Kent Buescher, owner of Wild Adventures, said seeing the faces of kids like Powell's light up is the reason he sponsors the program every year.

"I got into this business because I enjoy seeing kids smile," Buescher added.

Third-year volunteer Mabry Smith of Valdosta Insurance Services said he enjoys coming out and spending the day with the kids.

"I just like riding the rides with them and having fun," he said. "This is a great opportunity for kids in our area to come out and some have fun doing something they may not otherwise get to do."

About 90 local businesses and organizations "contributed" close to 600 volunteers to work with the children attending the United Way's event.

Sonya Mabery, financial manager for the United Way, said approximately 500 kids participated. The majority of them were second-graders from the Lowndes County and Valdosta City school systems. About 60 of them were from Valdosta Day Care Center.

Sallas-Mahone Elementary School's Sherri Bivins, a second-grader, said being at Wild Adventures Friday and spending time with her mentor made her feel happy and excited. She added she was really glad the United Way brought her out there for the day.

Everyone participating, kids and adults, had a lot of fun riding rides, playing games and getting wet. Although many of the kids started the day with a little hesitation, all of them left with a smile and the feeling that anything is possible.

"Today was about giving a child a day free of worries," said Terri Taylor with Valdosta State University's Cooperative Education office. "These kids are our future. Sometimes one day is all it takes to make a difference."

For more information on the United Way of Lowndes County, please call 242-2208.

To contact reporter Jessica Pope, please call 244-3400, ext. 255.

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