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Special Olympics give athletes a sense of community

The Special Olympics program has been around since the late 1960s, and since that time has expanded greatly to encompass communities worldwide.

In Mississippi, Special Olympics is split up by county, dividing the state into 18 areas so that each area can have its own staff that focuses on the communities there.

Pearl River County is part of Area Three along with Hancock, Harrison, and Stone counties.

Each year in the spring there is an outside sporting event hosted in Picayune where athletes gather and compete.

Director of Area Three Andrea Riley said the event usually brings in anywhere from 100 to 150 athletes. The impressive showing doesn’t include the numerous volunteers who make the events possible with their service.

Riley said that community engagement is a vital part of the Special Olympics.

“When community rallies around them it gives them a sense of belonging,” Riley said. “It draws them to the community and the community to them.”

The programs help the athletes by giving them the opportunity to take part in friendly competition, and engage in physical activity.

Additionally, Riley said that athletes benefit from the experience in other ways as well.

“It’s a good program to try to help athletes, and teach them about being healthy and forming relationships,” Riley said.

Riley said that for some athletes just being part of the program gives them a sense of accomplishment and a big confidence boost.Riley is constantly trying to get more people involved in Special Olympics, and to do that she uses the program’s social media accounts to notify anyone who might be interested that events are coming up. Riley said the programs focus on bringing in the community, and getting people involved.

“As times have evolved we are really trying to promote inclusion of the athletes we serve,” Riley said. “We want to include the community and make it one cohesive team.”

Having athletes feel like they belong is a priority for programs like Special Olympics, and it teaches athletes certain social skills they wouldn’t get elsewhere.

“Some people on the autism spectrum have a difficult time making connections,” Riley said. “It teaches certain areas of social skills and builds friendships.”

There are other instructional projects that are part of Special Olympics, and this includes teaching athletes about the importance of eating healthy and exercising.

Riley said that the growth of Special Olympics and people getting involved are the reason these extra programs exist. The organization is always in need of more volunteers, and Riley hopes that the program continues to grow and serve more athletes.

“It’s important not only to the athletes, but for loved ones and families to give them a sense of community,” Riley said.