When 8-year-old Autumn Tellier of Fitchburg arrived at the first candlepin bowling practice for the Special Olympics Midstate Strikers, she proudly told the coaches, "I am here to be a helper."

Autumn initially believed she was attending practice to assist her older sister, Valerie, an energetic, 12-year-old who bowled top scores for the past Midstate Strikers season. The coaches wrote Autumn's name on a scorecard at that first practice and at every practice through the season. Autumn bowled in rotation with the rest of the athletes. When the athletes got their team shirts, Autumn got one, too. What Autumn learned is that in the Special Olympics Unified Sports program, she was a full member of the team -- an athlete, a peer, and a friend.

Autumn, like all athletes on the Strikers, bowled each week -- without bumpers -- and over the season developed skills in bowling and sportsmanship. One week after the team held the final practice for the year, Autumn and Valerie attended the first practice of the Midstate Lightning athletics (track and field) team.

"I love seeing them work together as peers. When they do, it doesn't seem like their differences are so significant," said Stephanie Tellier, Autumn and Valerie's mom.

Changing the world through sports

On July 20, 1968, 1,000 people with intellectual disabilities gathered at Chicago's Soldier Field for the first International Special Olympics Summer Games. Over the past nearly 50 years, Special Olympics has grown and developed into a comprehensive movement committed to "Changing the World Through Sports" with programs to encourage inclusion and acceptance and to build communities.

While Special Olympics has traditionally been associated with children with intellectual disabilities, all youth are welcome to participate, become teammates, and work together to spread the message of inclusion. There are several ways for kids to participate:

Unified Sports: Special Olympics Unified Sports was founded in Massachusetts. It is designed to have athletes with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team. Unified Sports exist in Massachusetts in community-based local programs and school-based programs.

Community-based programs: Community-based local programs of the Special Olympics of Massachusetts offer 24 different sports. They include: aquatics, basketball, bocce, bowling (ten-pin and candlepin), cycling, equestrian events, figure skating, fishing, flag football, floor hockey, golf, gymnastics, horseshoes, powerlifting, roller skating, sailing, skiing (alpine and Nordic), snowboarding, soccer, softball, speed skating, tennis, track & field, and volleyball. More than half of the sports represented have a Unified Sports community-based component at one or more local programs in the state. Different local programs focus on specific sports and age ranges of athletes. When a group of volunteers, who are often parents of children with intellectual disabilities, recognize an interest and need in their community for a new program, staff at the Special Olympics of Massachusetts headquarters help them put their program together.

School-based programs: "One of our strategic areas for growth is in schools where youth through teenage and early 20s can be involved," said Charles M. Hirsch, communications and marketing manager for Special Olympics of Massachusetts.

According to Hirsch, school programs are really growing, and the potential growth is huge. More than 35 schools participated in the recent sports season. This past year, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association hosted a track meet for Unified Track, in which the winning schools each received a state championship trophy.

"As I understand it, these are the same trophies winning varsity athletic teams get," Hirsch said. "It was a huge victory for Unified Sports and the support of inclusion in the schools."

Hirsch explained that kids who do not have intellectual disabilities get involved with Special Olympics Unified Sports programs for a variety of reasons. Oftentimes, partners who participate in Unified Sports really enjoy sports, but are not ready to commit to varsity-level teams. For an example, he referenced one student who wanted to focus on his education during high school, but also wanted to stay active through sports. So this athlete participated in a Unified Sports school-based track & field program.

It's a win-win situation for everyone because all athletes get the opportunity to maintain active, healthy lifestyles and promote inclusion behavior, Hirsch said.

Special Olympics is dedicated to inclusion in all areas of school, from kindergarten through college. Project UNIFY is a multi-faceted, school-based program with leadership and athletic opportunities for students with and without intellectual disabilities. One component is the R-Word Campaign. This powerful initiative to Spread the Word to End the Word is raising awareness so people will stop using the hurtful and derogatory "r-word." To date, more than 645,000 people have logged onto r-word.org and signed the pledge. Project UNIFY offers a variety of resources for students and teachers to become leaders in the area of promoting acceptance and respect for individuals with intellectual disability.

College students can be involved with Special Olympics through participating NCAA Division III Partnership schools, fraternity and sorority commitments to the Special Olympics movement, and SO College, which offers inclusive sports, youth leadership programs, and opportunities for Full Campus Involvement.

As the communications and marketing director for Special Olympics of Massachusetts, Hirsch believes one amazing way everyone can help is using social media apps to spread a positive word and share enthusiasm about Special Olympics events and activities by tagging @specialolympicsmassachusetts in posts.

Taking the next step to get involved

Autumn is excited to start the next candlepin bowling season with the Midstate Strikers. When asked what she would say to a child unsure whether he or she should get involved with Special Olympics she responded, "Special Olympics is really fun. They would probably love it if they like running track and bowling. In track, we do a lot of relay races. In bowling, we take turns. It is easy when waiting for your turn because there are a lot of really nice people to talk to."

To find out more about Special Olympics opportunities in your community, email getinvolved@specialolympicsma.org.

A Note from the Author: My perspective on the power of Special Olympics is very close and clear. I am a Special Olympics local program coordinator and coach. I have witnessed the profound capacity for community-building that is possible through Special Olympics programs. I encourage all parents to take some time to tour the websites for Special Olympics (specialolympics.org) and Special Olympics of Massachusetts (specialolympicsma.org), especially the "What We Do" tabs on each site. Watch the videos and read the content. Then, sit with your children and talk about what Special Olympics is and see if they want to get involved. This is an opportunity to teach your children how each and every one of us serves as a role model on how to treat others. Kids, especially middle and high school students, experience a lot of peer pressure, and often the cool kids set an example of bullying and exclusion. By getting involved in any of the many facets of Special Olympics, children will quickly learn that it is very cool to be part of an inclusive community where everyone is valued for just being themselves.