M. Terry / SFVS

Cheering On The Players — (Clockwise, l-r) Marie Lambert and Adelle Ahearn; Lynn and Ronnie Townsend; Makenzie Fish and Robin Hilgenberg; Cherisa Tolbert and Ordray Smith.

The 2015 Special Olympics World Games have gleefully taken over Los Angeles and other Southland communities this week, with nearly 7,000 global athletes participating. But, understandably, there are other things going on here besides fun and games.

The Special Olympics have also been teaching the general public about the importance of the “R” word — as in respect. The games, more subtly, have also shown the importance of the “I” word. That would be “inclusion.”

The second point was wonderfully made during the soccer matches held at the Balboa Sports Center in Encino on Tuesday, July 28.

Teams were divided into two categories: Traditional and Unified. The 7-on-7 Unified teams had both male and female players. Four of the seven were Special Olympians, while the other three were non-special athletes. They came in all shapes and sizes They were out there in 90-plus degree heat and under cloudless skies to compete and to win.

The USA team, playing Luxembourg, was comprised of Floridians primarily from the Land O’Lakes High School. Male and female, in all shapes and sizes, in various degrees of ability. But playing hard in front of a small but vocal crowd chanting “U-S-A” that cheered every shot and groaned at every missed opportunity.

No one was watching a group of people functioning with intellectual and/or physical disabilities.

They were watching a soccer match, ultimately won by the USA, 4-2, on this day of round-robin play. Nothing less, nothing more.

How Sports Changes Lives

Adelle Ahearn of Tampa, FL, was among the most vocal of spectators. Her son Andrew was on the USA team. This was a homecoming of sorts. Andrew, 18, the youngest of her three sons, was born in Burbank before the family moved to Tampa. He got into soccer in junior high, Ahearn said.  And the chance to play sports was transformative in Andrew’s life.

“The social benefit has been amazing,” Ahearn said. “He’s been able to interact with other peers who don’t have the same challenges. They just become family and watch out for each other. And for him, the confidence in himself he needed to be like other people. It’s amazing to see the confidence level he’s built up over the years.”

Then she groaned in sync with the crowd. Andrew just missed a header, which would have given the USA its first goal.

Cherisa Tolbert, also of Tampa, had seen a similar transformation in her son Ordray Smith, 16, the USA goalie. She said that when Smith — the youngest of her four children — was born, doctors  told her he probably would not talk and would barely function. In the beginning, the predictions seemed distressingly accurate.

“Dray wouldn’t do anything,” she said. “He didn’t want go outside, he didn’t want to be social with anyone. He just wanted to stay by himself, climb trees, meditate. Now Dray’s all over the place; Dray has friends. When he went to high school, he found other children like him. They formed a bond.

“Ever since Dray started playing sports, he’s doing everything (football, basketball, track and field, etc.). At first I was fearful for him. He has two other brothers in school with him, but I was scared because he was always the little one, the one everybody thought wouldn’t be anything.”

How Others Contribute

The power and understanding of inclusion had made an impact on the other players who were not Special Athletes.

Kyle Townsend, 18, was one of the three Unified Partners on the field for the USA. His parents, Lynn and Ronnie Townsend watched their son from the top level of the stands with quiet pride as he helped teammates and defend against the Luxembourg team with a quiet pride. The two  social workers, who live with their son in Land O’ Lakes, FL,  had tried to instill the need of acceptance in him as a small boy, and were highly gratified when Kyle said he wanted to be a part of the Special Olympics programs.

“For him it has been an experience in learning to include others in his circle,” Lynn said. “At the same time, he has his own challenges with his size. So he looks at other people differently, too. He’s tall and thin. So I guess for him, its been about people calling him names because he is thin. So he’s looking at inclusion from that perspective, I think.

“He likes working with the other athletes. He’s watched them grow, which helped him grow and mature. He loves helping them build their skills.

Added Ronnie, “He has overcome challenges himself. He has a real fear of flying. But with the traveling with the team — he went to a training session in Indianapolis — he had to fly because he wanted to be with the kids.So he had to challenge himself. And he overcame those challenges by being involved with Special Olympics.”

Robin Hilgenberg, a special needs school teacher from Land O’Lakes, tried to instill the same values in her sons Craig and Cameron. Both absorbed the messages, she said. Cameron, 19, played on the USA team as Robin, Craig and Cameron’s girlfriend Makenzie Fish cheered his every move.

“I’ve really seen (what inclusion means) with this particular team,” Robin Hilgenberg said. “And a lot of it has to do with the coach. She is an adaptive PE teacher as I am. The kids are treated as equals. And they rise to the occasion.

“Everyone in the world needs to know that everyone has feelings. Everyone needs to be treated like a human being. And I think with [these games], it really is bringing the world together. I know it’s a cliché, but everyone here, whether you speak English or not, is cordial, doing the ‘head-nod’ or whatever, because we are all in this together.”