When the Special Olympics World Games open this Saturday in Los Angeles, they will showcase 6,500 athletes competing from 165 countries.
But the games will also have a small army of Fans in the Stands — volunteers who organize groups of 10 or more to attend World Games events to make sure the athletes get the enthusiasm and encouragement they deserve. As of early July, more than 100,000 people had signed up for this year’s games.
Among them will be Jill Wall, an executive assistant in customer service at Southern California Edison (SCE). Edison International, SCE’s parent company, donated $50,000 to the games and is organizing two Fans in the Stands volunteer groups.
Wall, however, signed up to be a captain of her own team because of her longtime interest in the Special Olympics.
She began volunteering with the organization in 1996 to help her daughter, Sarah, who has an intellectual disability and mild cerebral palsy. The Special Olympics promotes sports competition for the intellectually disabled. It became Wall’s lifelong passion.
“I love seeing the joy in my daughter’s face and in the athletes’ faces,” Wall says.
Wall now is a volunteer coach for Team Whittier and hopes some of the team’s 16 athletes join the Fans in the Stands events she is organizing this Saturday.
Sarah, now 30, will be one of those fans, cheering on her longtime friend Destiny who is competing in track. Sarah says her favorite competition is also “running” and from experience knows how great it is to hear fans cheering.
“It makes me happy,” she says.
Other Special Olympics athletes echoed her sentiments.
“Getting to play in front of so many people and seeing everyone cheering for me makes me feel so good,” says Randy Smith of El Cajon who competes in softball.
“Many of our employees are planning to cheer on these incredible athletes as Fans in the Stands,” says Tammy Tumbling, SCE director of Community Investment and Philanthropy. “We encourage others to come out and show their support.”
Steven Vanderpool, a spokesman for the World Games, notes that many first-time fans are surprised at how inspirational it can be to attend events even when they have no connection to those competing.
“You may go there thinking, ‘I’m here to help,’” Vanderpool says. “And then you realize, ‘Who’s helping who here?’”
All the World Games events are free except for the opening ceremonies. Vanderpool encourages Fans in the Stands volunteers to sign up in advance to make sure seats are available for the event they want to attend.