Athletics and sports are life-changing experiences for millions of people. Playing a sport can teach important lessons, skills, and values that can help players, especially children, to grow even when they’re off the field. But despite the numerous benefits that they have, sports are not always open to all people. In fact, although they have so much to gain from athletic participation, children with intellectual disabilities have few opportunities to play sports as members of a team compared to other kids their age. Children who have intellectual disabilities deserve a chance to play sports, and thankfully, there’s an organization that’s already working hard to make sure that they do: the Special Olympics.

Since its founding in 1968, the Special Olympics has used sports as a vehicle to help people with intellectual and physical disabilities to grow and have fun as well as promote greater social inclusion and tolerance. Today, the organization is active in nearly 170 million countries and supports over 4.7 million athletes with intellectual disabilities of all ages. The Special Olympics offers training in 30 sports programs to their athletes including basketball, swimming, equestrian, judo, and so many others. The organization also hosts a World Summer Games and a World Winter Games where Special Olympics athletes from all corners of the globe gather to compete. Even if the athletes never make it to the international competitions, they still get the chance to build self-confidence and self-esteem, stay fit, and foster friendships.

The first International Special Olympics Games were held in 1968, but the organization’s history stretches long before that. In fact, the Special Olympics’ founder, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, first became an advocate for people with intellectual disabilities after seeing how few opportunities were available to her sister, Rosemary, who had an intellectual disability. In 1962, she created a day camp for children with disabilities at her home in Maryland; from this humble beginning, the Special Olympics was born.

Everyone deserves the chance to enjoy sports, which is why I’ve been a longtime supporter of the Special Olympics. I first volunteered for the Special Olympics in 1975 at the Fourth International Summer Special Olympics Games in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, and I was involved in hosting Special Olympics events at all three schools where I’ve worked: Lake Superior State University, the University of Northern Colorado, and Northern Arizona University. Looking back on my own life, sports helped me to discover my strengths and my passions, and the Special Olympics works hard to make sure that all children have that chance–that’s what makes the organization so special.

For more information about the Special Olympics and how you can get involved, visit its website!