For Sofia Illiano, 11, the Special Olympics is like Christmas.
"Oh my God, she's so excited," said Gemma Illiano Leclerc, Sofia's mother. "She's been excited for like a couple of days. We don't tell her until like the day before."
Special Olympians from across Rhode Island are coming together this weekend for the 2014 Summer Games, beginning with a torch run and opening ceremonies Friday. Illiano Leclerc said family members and friends will watch her daughter compete this year in the 100-meter dash.
Sofia was one of two athletes who took part in a ceremony at the Rhode Island State House in Providence, as police officers and firefighters stopped on their way to the University of Rhode Island. That's where the "Flame of Hope" torch will light the cauldron Friday night to kick off the games. This is the 30th anniversary of the event.
"Everybody is touched somehow, some way with these little special people," Illiano Leclerc said. "Not only Down syndrome – it's all sorts of disabilities, so we are so grateful that everybody comes out and does a little something."
Patrol Officer Tammy David, who works for the East Providence Police Department, said the torch run is special to her because her son Cote, 11, has Down syndrome and competes in the Games.
“We're here for them. They're the heroes, the Special Olympic athletes," David said. "Every kid there's like my kid when I'm putting medals on them. It's just a great experience."
For athletes participating in the games, having family and friends come out to support them is meaningful, but family members say they're also happy to see support from other members of the community.
"You come away with such a fresh and inspirational perspective on life," said Chief Elwood Johnson of the Richmond Police Department. "It makes you a better father, police officer, firefighter, corrections officer."
As Sofia and her fellow athletes prepared for the upcoming games, runners passed through the streets, carrying the torch as a symbol of hope for Special Olympians and their communities.
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