This summer, Santa Monica will play a vital role in the largest sporting event to take place in Los Angeles since the 1984 Olympic Games — and if you’re a city resident, employee, business owner, or are simply interested in the cause, you can play a part too.

Over 7,000 athletes representing 177 countries from around the globe are coming to Los Angeles to compete in the 2015 Special Olympics World Games. Held July 25 through August 2 at venues throughout L.A., the Games will include 25 Olympic-type sports including aquatics, gymnastics, basketball, track and field and beach volleyball. For three days leading up to the opening ceremonies, Santa Monica will serve as an official Host Town for 100 Brazilian and Romanian athletes, providing the teams with cultural, training and recreational experiences that are authentic to our beautiful city by the sea.

Santa Monica has long enjoyed a deep connection to Special Olympics, which was started in the 1960s by the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of President John F. Kennedy and mother of former Santa Monica Mayor and City Council Member Bobby Shriver. Eunice Shriver’s outrage at the injustices faced by people with intellectual disabilities and her unshakeable belief in their tremendous potential were the driving forces behind what today has become a global phenomenon in which nearly four million athletes participate.

Santa Monica was also the birthplace of Special Olympics on the Westside. In the spring of 1976 Olympic gold medalist Rafer Johnson and Santa Monica College (SMC) Professor Jo Kidd started the first Special Olympics program in the West L.A.-Santa Monica area. In partnership with the City of Santa Monica Recreation Department they began holding weekly training sessions in track and field at SMC followed by the first Westside Special Olympics (WSO) meet. In the mid-1980s, the City assumed complete oversight of WSO and appointed a Rec Department staffer to serve as area director and liaison to the state program.

As a Host Town for the upcoming World Games July 21-23, Santa Monica will be responsible for all of the costs of hosting the Brazilian and Romanian teams’ athletes, coaches and chaperones, including lodging, transportation, practice space and food. That’s where you or your business or organization can make a difference. If you are interested in making cash donations, providing in-kind products and services, or volunteering, visit Santa Monica’s Host Town website at www.la2015.org/host-town/santa-monica for more information.

Even if you can’t contribute time or money to hosting the World Games athletes, there are plenty of other ways to get involved with Special Olympics in Santa Monica. Special Olympics Southern California-Westside, as it’s now called, has grown exponentially over the nearly 40 years since its humble beginnings at SMC. Today it offers year-round programs and competitions in Santa Monica, Malibu, Pacific Palisades, West Hollywood, West LA, Century City, Westwood, Culver City, Mar Vista, Venice, Marina Del Rey, Playa Del Rey and Westchester. Area athletes compete in gymnastics, track and field, basketball, soccer and many other sports.

But Special Olympics is much more than a local sports league, notes Santa Monica Community Services Program Supervisor Tony Carpowich, who serves as area director for Special Olympics Southern California-Westside. “Developing the athletes’ physical, psychological, intellectual and spiritual qualities underlies everything that is done in Special Olympics.”

Because Special Olympics does not receive federal funds and programs are free to all eligible athletes, Special Olympics Southern California-Westside depends on financial support and volunteer efforts by individuals and businesses.

One example of local corporate commitment that extends beyond the Westside is Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier. Pacific Park hosts Pier del Sol, Special Olympics Southern California’s (SOSC) primary annual fundraiser and is an active corporate partner of the Southern California chapter’s Summer Games. In addition, Pacific Park CEO Mary Ann Powell serves on SOSC’s Board of Directors and local organizing committee for Santa Monica’s involvement as a Host Town in the Special Olympics World Games.

“While we are known for fun and games, we take our role in the community very seriously,” said Powell. “We are engaged with Special Olympics on a variety of levels, which gives Pacific Park and its team many volunteer opportunities from board positions and standing committees to supporting fundraising efforts and cheering the athletes in competition.”

According to Carpowich, the satisfaction of coaching Special Olympics athletes is what keeps people coming back year after year. “The majority of volunteers who try it become lifers,” he says. “The average number of years my current volunteers have served is well over 17. I have one woman who recently ‘retired’ from coaching after 37 years. These athletes are so enthusiastic and appreciative that it just touches your heart. You can be having a bad day and then remember you’re going to coach the next weekend and it will just make you smile.”

If you’d like to be one of the people who keeps Special Olympics alive on the Westside, you can learn about coaching, assisting with sports or special events, or providing office help by calling (310) 458-8237. If you’d like to help the program out financially, you can get information about donating cash — or even an old vehicle — at (866) 244-8464.

However you choose to participate, you’ll be continuing Santa Monica’s rich history of providing children and adults with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to participate in life-changing social and athletic activities.

This monthly column is brought to you by Santa Monica Travel & Tourism (SMTT), formerly Santa Monica Convention & Visitors Bureau, a private, non-profit corporation formed in 1982 and funded by the City of Santa Monica and the Tourism Marketing District to promote Santa Monica as a conference, business and leisure travel destination while providing in-market services to visitors while they are here. To learn more about SMTT and how you can be a tourist in your own backyard, visit www.santamonica.com or follow us on Twitter @GoSantaMonica or become a Facebook fan at www.facebook.com/visitsantamonica.

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