What better locale can rival Los Angeles as host to some of the world’s most dedicated athletes? Some of the greatest sports stars in history, of course, have performed locally, but these household names may pale in comparison to the character and determination on display July 25 through Aug. 2, when the 2015 Special Olympics World Games comes to southern California.

Palmdale is among 100 cities and towns across the region selected to host some 7,000 athletes from 170 nations who will perform in sporting events that many of them may have never dreamed would be possible. Other local communities hosting Special Olympics athletes and delegations include Santa Clarita, Calabasas, Thousand Oaks, Long Beach, Burbank, West Covina and Studio City. Once the competition begins, the athletes will reside at Special Olympics villages on the USC and UCLA campuses.

A fun time for all

World Games officials say this will be a fun time for these young people who suffer primarily from intellectual disabilities, but demonstrate an unyielding commitment to athletic achievement and maintain a mental “toughness” that can’t always be taught by a coach or mentor. The Special Olympics athletes can’t run as fast, jump as high, leap as far, or cover the field or court as swiftly as do persons more mentally/physically adept, but their respective commitment to their sports may be unparalleled. The athletes may have a bigger heart for “going for the gold” than any famous local name past or present who has donned a jersey and laced up their shoes for competition.

Athletes from the nations of Cyprus and St. Lucia will be in Palmdale for only a few days. Like famous professional athletes, they will adhere to strict nutritional regimens and “curfew” hours; local volunteers have scheduled a varied itinerary that will help them get to know their temporary home. The activities will include a kickball game from 7 to 9 p.m. on July 22 at the Best of the West Softball Complex; an introduction to Western line dancing and a cultural Q&A from 1 to 3 p.m. on July 23 at Marie Kerr Park Recreation Center; Thursday Night on the Square from 7 to 8:30 p.m. July 23 at Poncitlan Square, 38314 9th Street East; and a special delegates farewell scheduled for July 24 at Marie Kerr Park Recreation Center.

The kickball game will find local service organizations providing game-time snacks typically found at ball games and sporting events. In this instance, area volunteers will supply bubble gum, licorice chews, sunflower seeds, sports drinks, chips and all of the popular ball park delights for spectators. While in town, the athletes will also visit the Antelope Valley Mall; Palmdale’s Church of Jesus Christ-Latter Day Saints will serve a number of meals.

“We’re honored to have been selected as a host town for the Special Olympics World Games,” said Keri Smith, director of the Palmdale Recreation and Culture department. “While they’re here in Palmdale, our guest athletes will be training for the games, getting used to the time zone, and enjoying our local culture. It’s a thrill to have them here, and a unique pleasure to work with the various organizations that will help to make the athletes feel at home.”

‘Host Town Palmdale’

There’s still time for local residents and businesses to participate in welcoming the visitors. Palmdale officials have established a “Host Town Palmdale” page on Facebook where persons can learn details about how to sponsor an athlete, prepare snack bags for them, or serve as baggage and equipment assistants. A number of service groups will provide a selection of “healthy snacks” for each athlete and coach for their arrival and departure. These volunteer groups will purchase all of the necessary items and will assemble and deliver the estimated 104 snack bags at the ceremonies for the official arrival on July 21 and at the departure on July 24. Officials suggest including in each snack bag a granola bar, a single piece of fruit, a cookie and a sports drink or bottled water. No home-baked goods are allowed and each bag should be fully assembled and ready for distribution upon delivery.

Volunteers can also sponsor one of the athletes. These tax-deductible donations go directly to Host Town Palmdale and will pay for food, lodging and transportation while the athletes are training locally.

Baggage and equipment assistants are needed to help unload gear from the delegate’s bus and deliver the luggage to the correct hotel room upon arrival. Volunteers will also load baggage and gear back onto the delegate’s bus on departure. You must be able to lift at least 50 pounds; these persons will be called upon on July 21 and 24 (time and location TBA).

Local youth are needed to help create and sustain fanfare for the visiting delegates. Officials are looking for middle and high school students, pep bands and squads, and service organizations to provide signs, banners and general enthusiasm by cheering on the athletes and bidding them good luck as they head toward the opening ceremony at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The “pep rally” will be conducted July 21 at Marie Kerr Park Recreation Center.

Volunteers are needed

Persons wishing to donate or volunteer should visit the “Host Town Palmdale” Facebook page and post a comment to indicate which activity they’d like to be part of.

The Host Town program is in its 20th year and has played an integral role with the Special Olympics World Games. Various cities and towns in countries such as Ireland, China, Japan, Greece and South Korea have provided athletes and coaches an opportunity over the years to learn a little more about the different cultures and to discover just how much the various nationalities have in common.

“The Host Town program gives each community an opportunity to showcase to the world what makes them special, but more importantly to provide citizens with a better understanding of intellectual disabilities that will lead to acceptance and inclusion for all,” said Patrick McClenahan, president and CEO of LA2015, the local organizing group for the World Games. “Long after the World Games are over, the memories of those three days spent at a Host Town will leave a lasting legacy for Special Olympics Southern California and everyone who was touched by our athletes. We are thankful to all participating Host Towns and their tireless volunteers for opening their doors—and their hearts—to our athletes and coaches.”

The last World Games were conducted in 2011 in Athens, Greece. Officials this year expect about one-half million spectators to cheer on the athletes. There are reportedly 80,000 Special Olympics competitions that occur each year around the world. World Games officials say that participation by athletes is increasing yearly because more information is being disseminated about how mentally-impaired persons can learn to better care for themselves and lead productive lives. More than 200 million people worldwide have an intellectual disability, making it by far the largest disability group. Intellectual disability crosses racial, ethnic, educational, social and economic lines.

Changing lives around the world

“These games will change the lives of people around the world who are mistreated and excluded because they’re different,” McClenahan said. “It is a wonderful time to see how the human spirit can rise to a challenge. These athletes represent the best in character and courage, and we invite the public to come to one of the venues and cheer them on.”

There will be a number of special events, programs and festivals in recognition of the 2015 World Games, including conferences and summits conducted by scientific organizations which study intellectual disabilities. Additionally, there will be workshops for families caring for persons with intellectual disabilities, including programs for healthy athletes, and motor activity training centering on young athletes with intellectual disabilities. A triathlon and half-marathon are also scheduled, and there will be a Miss Amazing Pageant and a Special Olympics Inaugural Dance Challenge.

Stevie Wonder will headline at the opening ceremony which will also be attended by First Lady Michelle Obama. Entertainment will also feature Avril Lavigne, Nicole Scherzinger, O.A.R., Cody Simpson (featuring Special Olympics athlete Breanna Bogucki and YouTube sensation Madison Tevlin), J. Balvin and Becky G., and “Reach Up LA” theme song creator Siedah Garret. Also appearing at the opening ceremony are talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, actress Eva Longoria, Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps, former NBA All-Pro Yao Ming, and Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis.

“The Special Olympics is thrilled to have First Lady Michelle Obama join us on the momentous occasion of our 2015 Special Olympics World Games,” said Tim Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics. “Her vision of wellness, fitness and inclusion of all in sport is at the heart of Special Olympics and will be seen in the spirit of the athletes.”

How it began

The Special Olympics was founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy-Shriver. Her older sister, Rosemary, who was born with a intellectual disability, was reportedly the inspiration for the annual event which started originally in the late 1950s with the event “Camp Shriver.” It was a summer day camp she hosted in her backyard in Massachusetts for young people with intellectual disabilities. Throughout the 1960s, Kennedy-Shriver continued pioneering work—both as a driving force behind President John F. Kennedy’s White House Panel on people with intellectual disabilities, and as director of the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation.

The first Special Olympics was conducted at Soldier Field in Chicago and hosted 1,000 persons with intellectual disabilities from 26 states and Canada, who competed originally in track and field, swimming and floor hockey. The event soon became a global movement. In 1975, President Gerald Ford served as honorary chairman, and in 1977 more than 500 athletes competed in the games which were broadcast on network television. The United Nations, in 1986, established the International Year of the Special Olympics; by 1989, the International Olympic Committee had officially endorsed the Special Olympics.

Special Olympics athletes today compete in many more sports, including badminton, basketball, beach volleyball, bowling, cycling, equestrian, soccer, golf, gymnastics, judo, powerlifting, roller skating, handball, tennis and softball.

In 2001, the first-ever Global Athlete Congress met in The Hague, Netherlands, in recognition of Special Olympics athletes. Also that year, former South Africa President Nelson Mandela, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Special Olympics athletes gathered to light the Flame of Hope thus beginning the law enforcement torch relay run through the streets of Cape Town. Former President George W. Bush, in 2004, signed the Special Olympics Sport and Empowerment Act that allotted $15 million every year for five years to Special Olympics programs. It was the first time that Special Olympics secured support through any type of U.S. legislation.

Last year, President Barack Obama and the First Lady hosted “Celebration for Special Olympics and a Unified Generation,” which saw some of the world’s leading social activists, business leaders, sports legends and entertainers attend an event which not only saluted the work of R. Sargent Shriver and Eunice Kennedy-Shiver, but engaged young people in resisting inactivity, encouraging exercise, good nutrition and fighting intolerance and injustice in their schools and communities. Eunice Kennedy-Shriver died in 2009; her husband, a former U.S. senator and ambassador, died in 2011.

Each year Washington, D.C., hosts a special Eunice Kennedy-Shriver Challenge which is a running, walking and cycling event to honor the founder and to support the ongoing private fundraising efforts for Special Olympics.