By Natalia A. Bonilla Berrios
SAN JUAN -- It started at 6 p.m. The launch of the first event of its kind to ever be held on the Island, left 20,000 spectators ecstatic. On February 20, Puerto Rico became host to the II Latinoamerican Games of the Special Olympics 2010 in the Hiram Bithorn Stadium.
The event aims to provide mentally challenged young people, between eight and thirty- years-old, a "regional sports competition in which they could demonstrate their skills and capabilities" according to the Puerto Rican main website.
Uniting 1,200 athletes from 18 delegations from the continent and 18 more invited from across the globe, the Games will "create conscience to stop segregation and start a movement of equality and integration" of all human beings, proclaimed the mayor of San Juan, Jorge Santini.
The country's capital has donated all the hosting installations for the eleven sports that will be played until February 28: the Central Park (tennis, bowling, weightlifting, athletics); the natatorium of San Juan's Hiram Bithorn Stadium (football); the Roberto Clemente Coliseum (basketball) and the Pedrin Zorrilla Coliseum (rhythmic gymnastics).
The 30-year-old swimmer Hector De JesÃºs represented the delegation of Puerto Rico, comprised of 181 athletes and 30 coaches, as the bearer of the countryÂ´s flag. In an exclusive interview, he said he believes these events are important "because it will show people who are the disable and what we can do to be accepted worldwide."
Continuing the legacy
Although Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics, died on August 11, 2009, her son Timothy addressed the public at the event's Inauguration.
The president and CEO of Special Olympics Worldwide emphasized the link we all share with the Haitian delegation.
"We shall not forget the ones that couldnÂ´t come, especially our brothers and athletes in Haiti," said Mr. Shriver, while adding "to all of those in Haiti, we have cried with you ...and soon we will unite to help you make a country of hope, justice and acceptance."
He also spoke to the athletes that face autism, Down Syndrome and learning problems, "Every day, you fight against prejudices and the fear of generations. You will remember that in each one of us thereÂ´s the bravery to overcome all obstacles." he concluded.
According to Josie I. Vega, communications director of SO Puerto Rico, on the Island there are 100,000 Puerto Ricans with intellectual disabilities. From that number, the local headquarters only services 1,000. While the program to service qualified individuals has many benefits -- such as improving physical and motor skills, building self-confidence and self-esteem -- it only reaches a minimum of the population who need these services because of the lack of volunteer instructors.
Believe the theme
After the Olympic flame-lighting by Special athlete Alexis Casiano and prominent athlete Javier Culson, the crowd was treated to a performance by the Christian duo Tercer Cielo, who sang the theme song of the Games, "CreerÃ©" (I will believe).
Rivaling the star power of the recent opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the opening ceremonies of II Latinoamerican Games of the Special Olympics 2010 also featured such well-known Latin artists as Zory, Milly Quezada, NG2, Andy MontaÃ±ez, the group "San Juan es Salsa," and the State Band of Puerto Rico, among others.
The thrill and pride of hosting this event has been so profound on the island that Mr Santini has already requested the 2015 World Special Olympics to be held in Puerto Rico.
Learn more about Natalia
Natalia A. Bonilla Berrios is a junior at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) majoring in Journalism and minoring in Political Science, International Relations. Natalia has a 3.90 GPA.
She was the former president of the UPR student chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, a member of the National Society of Collegiates and Scholars and was selected for the 'Who's Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges' program, during her freshman year.
In addition, she has worked as an intern reporter for DiÃ¡logo Digital, Puerto Rican Center of Investigative Journalism, served as a staff writer for ParÃ©ntesis newspaper, and as a volunteer reporter for IDentidad magazine.
Bonilla has served as student representative for the Freedom of the Press Center of Puerto Rico and has been selected as one of the UWIRE's Top 100 Student Journalists of 2009.
She was selected for the Student Camp at Unity 2008, the quadrennial Journalists of Color Convention and also, as a volunteer for the 2009 International Year of Astronomy.