A division of the international organization founded in 1968, the Knoxville Special Olympics aims to improve the quality of life for individuals with mental retardation and their families.

Area Five, the first Special Olympics program in the Knoxville area, was initiated in 1972 with 300 special education students from Knoxville, Oak Ridge and Roane County.

Initially, track and field events were the only ones offered. Since then, the program has grown to include over 1,500 athletes.

Eight new traditional sports and 10 unified sports have been added, including gymnastics, basketball, swimming, flag football and soccer.

Tim Lee, co-director of Knoxville Area Special Olympics, said one of the main goals of the program is to undermine stereotypes.

"A lot of the time when people think about Special Olympics, they imagine a bunch of kids running around, getting help and not wearing proper athletic gear," said Lee, who is also a special education teacher at Hardin Valley Academy. "But we are giving them the same experience as you would any athlete."

With guidance from teachers and coaches, athletes can choose what sports they wish to participate in.

"We have athletes with different cognitive abilities and different physical abilities, but no matter what, someway, somehow we can figure out what they can excel at," Lee said.

With funding for Special Olympics events coming entirely from donations from the community and fundraising events throughout the year, athletes are not charged for their participation or for trips to any out-of-town competitions.

"Our biggest expenses are the traveling and registration fees that go along with our four state events per year as well as the medals we purchase for the athletes," Lee said. "We are usually able to make ends meet, but sometimes we really do struggle with funding."

Unified sports, as opposed to traditional, are played with teams that pair special education students with non-disabled partners. These cooperative games, such as basketball, build self-esteem and confidence for disabled athletes.

"Special Olympics is all about pushing students with disabilities to their full potential," said Carrie Hopper, a sophomore majoring in special education. "With unified sports, they are given the opportunity to play and have real competition with other students with or without disabilities."

Immensely impacted by her time as a volunteer, Hopper's best memory involves a 21-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who had never walked before joining the Special Olympics program.

"Everyone stopped and watched her finish her race, cheering her on," Hopper said. "It was one of the greatest events of my entire life just to see her compete and do something that she would have never had hope to do before that."

Hopper started volunteering with Special Olympics in high school, and has continued to work various events around her busy school schedule.

"Volunteering has made me realize how much that people with disabilities are truly capable of," Hopper said. "A lot of the time, our culture underestimates them. People with disabilities can be so determined, and after they finish their event or tournament they are just filled with so much joy and happiness. Sometimes it's because they got a gold medal, and sometimes it's just because they finished the race, and it's the greatest moment ever for them."

But the mission of Special Olympics moves far beyond winning races or medals. For Hopper, Special Olympics poses the chance to befriend talented individuals while advocating for fairness and respect.

"There is more to having a relationship with someone who has a disability than trying to help them or teach them," Lee said. "It's more about developing relationships that give them the same opportunities that any other person would have."

The next Special Olympics event is a basketball game that will be held at Holston Middle School on Nov. 21. To learn more, donate or sign up to volunteer for Special Olympics, clcik here.