From July 25 to August 2, over 7,000 athletes will be participating in the 2015 Special Olympics World Games held this year in Los Angeles. Over 30,000 local and international citizens from over 160 countries are expected to volunteer and lend a hand to make it a world class sports experience. Before the games begin, over 100 communities across Southern California will be involved with a three day pre-Games celebration called Host Towns. This week L.A. Letters celebrates the 2015 Special Olympics World Games, spotlights the event's history through the lens of a local family, and previews the Host Towns program which will be taking place from July 21 to July 24.
The Special Olympics began in the 1950s and early 1960s when Eunice Kennedy Shriver noticed how poorly treated people with intellectual disabilities were. She also saw how children with intellectual disabilities did not have a place to play or any outlet to physically express themselves. She started with a summer day camp in her own backyard, and this gradually evolved into the Special Olympics movement. According to the 2015 World Games website, "the goal was to learn what these children could do in sports and other activities -- and not dwell on what they could not do." The theme of inclusion has always been at the forefront of the Special Olympics from the very beginning.
The nine day competition is the world's second-largest sports event, after only the Olympic Games. The competition includes 26 sports events, from aquatics to volleyball. The Special Olympics is a volunteer-based organization, and the social and emotional impact created by it cannot be measured.
A Local Family's Story
Lifelong Alhambra resident Mari Delgado has been volunteering with the Special Olympics from the time she was in pre-school. Her mother, Sandra Delgado, was the regional coordinator in East L.A. and started volunteering in 1969. "She was six months pregnant with me while running one major event, running up and down East Los Angeles College's stairs in their track area," Mari tells me.
The Delgado family became involved because of Mari's uncle and Sandra Delgado's brother, Gregory Scott. "My uncle Gregory Scott was born in 1957 with Down Syndrome," Mari says. "He was the youngest of nine children. Greg started the Special Olympics with bowling and ended his participation with bowling. He also participated in swimming and track and field."
Mari's mother and grandmother originally volunteered to encourage Greg's interaction with others who had developmental disabilities, to expose him to various sports and to keep him physically active and active in his community. "These are key reasons," she says, "why the Special Olympics grew into a worldwide organization as it gave children and adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities an environment for healthy competition opportunities, year round activity and access to highly trained coaching professionals."
Mari's mother and grandmother began volunteering "around 1969 as part of ELARCA- East Los Angeles Retarded Children's Association. This was a grassroots group of mothers who wanted group activities for their kids with developmental disabilities," she says. "They began with bowling. Eventually as their kids grew the "C" from ELARCA transitioned to Citizens. (Back in this time, it was "ok" to use "retarded.")"
As the Special Olympics evolved and expanded, Mari tells me, "my mom found herself taking the lead of the Special Olympics in the East L.A. area. She renamed the organization the Greater East Los Angeles Special Olympics, around 1976. It was a geographical area, not just East L.A. as we know it. She headed the role of regional coordinator until about 1980, a year after I was born."
As time went on, Mari's family remained involved in the games. Her mother was able to get hundreds of Eastside residents to volunteer over the years, as well as getting big name corporate sponsors like Coca-Cola to participate. For as long as she can remember, Mari was helping her mother and grandmother in the events throughout her childhood and she remains involved today.
Mari's uncle participated in swimming and track and field in the 1970s and early 80s, but stopped after he had a tracheostomy in 1981/82. In later years, bowling became his favorite sport because it fit his new lifestyle after his medical condition. His achievement and brave example carried on throughout his life. His spirit was so strong that he lived longer than medical experts expected. In September of 2013, at the age of 56, Gregory Scott passed away from end stages of Alzheimer's and dementia. "My mom and I acted as his primary caregivers until the end, choosing to keep him home where he could pass in his own room that he loved so much," Mari says. "It's important to note that there is a strong correlation between Down syndrome (Trisomy 21) and Alzheimer's disease. It's becoming a huge deal in the aging Down's community as many are living longer and requiring extensive care."
His legacy remains a bright light in their family. "I've never questioned how Gregory could have achieved so many medals or ribbons," she says. "I was too proud and in awe of his accomplishments. I never asked how he could have done it because he 'had Down syndrome.' I look at Gregory's medals and ribbons every day. I have them proudly displayed and they remind me how good and fulfilled his life was."
These sentiments of fulfillment expressed by Mari are echoed by thousands of Special Olympics athletes and their families the world over. As Mari tells me, "Where those with intellectual and developmental disabilities can experience exclusion at different points in their lives, the Special Olympics offers sports as a means of inclusion where everyone can play on an equal playing field. Don't underestimate the Special Olympics athletes -- they are well trained athletes at the top of their sport. They have trained for years, sometimes their whole lives for these Games."
The Special Olympics official oath further explains the spirit of the games: "Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in my attempt."
The Host Town Program
All of this brings us back to the Host Town Program that will be taking place for three days before the games begin. The Host Town program serves as a means for a delegation of athletes and their coaches from throughout the world to be exposed to the lifestyle, culture, food, and experiences specific to each of the Host Towns in Southern California.
Mari and her mother are involved with the group in her hometown of Alhambra. "When I learned that Alhambra would host a delegation," she says, "I signed up to be part of this historical event. It's given me pride in my association with the Special Olympics, community involvement in my hometown of Alhambra, and honoring my uncle Gregory for all of his athletic and personal achievements as a Special Olympian."
Alhambra and Monterey Park will host the German delegation from July 21-24. During that time, the athletes will take residence at California State University, Los Angeles and use the facilities for training. "They will be celebrated through welcome rallies, breakfasts, dinners, a rare Jet Propulsion Laboratory private tour in Pasadena, and a community meet and greet party at Alhambra Park on July 22, with fireworks," she says.
Over 100 communities across Southern California will be hosting similar cultural exchange programs in their cities. For example, Anaheim will be welcoming Canada and Senegal; Burbank will be welcoming Botswana and Zimbabwe; Cerritos will be welcoming Guyana and Uruguay; Downey will be welcoming Ireland; Inglewood will be welcoming Jamaica; Long Beach will be welcoming China; and Whittier will be welcoming Macau. There are dozens of other cities welcoming various countries, with site extending from Santa Barbara to San Diego. See their website and the map below for info about other participating cities.
Mari Delgado explains further about the cultural exchange that will be taking place. "One might ask why Host Towns don't receive delegations that 'match' the ethnic makeup of a particular city. It's a simple answer -- the athletes will enjoy a more profound cultural experience in a city with an ethnic and cultural identity different than their own," she says. Each city will be hosting its own special series of free events to make the athletes feel at home. As their website notes, "The Special Olympics athletes will feel truly celebrated and Host Town members will make friends for life."
The 2015 World Games is an important event for many reasons. It celebrates the amazing athletic abilities of the top world athletes who have intellectual or development disabilities; it's the world's largest sporting and humanitarian event this year; and it celebrates diversity, inclusion, and athletic spirit across an international platform. The fact the competitions are free to attend further reinforces the theme of inclusion that the Special Olympics has always placed at the forefront of its values. Above all, the focus is goodwill and human exchange.
Mari Delgado's story about her Uncle Gregory and her family's 45 years of involvement in the Special Olympics is only one of thousands of similar stories across America and the world. With 7,000 athletes and over 160 participating countries, the Special Olympics World Games is truly a global event with a tremendous emotional and social impact. Furthermore, the week-long games and the preceding Host Town programs will all be free events and open to the public.
The Opening Ceremonies on July 25 at the Memorial Coliseum is the only event that costs anything to attend. Appropriately enough, the timeless Stevie Wonder is the headliner and other goodwill ambassadors appearing include Yao Ming, Greg Louganis, and Avril Lavigne. Salute to all of the Host Towns, the countless volunteers, families, coaches and especially the athletes who make the Special Olympics World Games one of the most uplifting and inspirational events on our planet.