LOS ANGELES — Seven thousand athletes from 177 countries are competing in the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles.
More than 30,000 volunteers are helping out and many of them are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The volunteer efforts in Southern California involve 10,000 Latter-day Saints from 50 stakes. They join people of many faiths and community organizations to welcome and provide for the athletes in the largest sporting event in the world this year.
Special Olympians who traveled thousands of miles from Uruguay received an enthusiastic welcome to America in Long Beach. Latter-day Saints lined the walkway to the LDS Institute of Religion. They are some of the thousands involved in the largest service project in the Church's history.
Because the athletes are so far from home, their families and their usual routine, some Californians wrote messages in their languages and created replicas of their flags.
Earlier that day, a group of young people, member of the Interfaith Youth Initiative in Long Beach, took this on as a service project during their meeting inside the Institute.
"By giving back, it makes you reflect on how grateful you are for the things you have, but it also humbles you and makes you appreciate other people for their strength," said Zehra Siddiqui, a Muslim member of the Interfaith Initiative.
Niravroh Laha said he is an atheist but interested in learning of faith by being a member of this interfaith group.
"If I'm going to be sitting around in summer, then I can do something productive that helps make the world a better place," he said.
Next stop is the famed Santa Monica pier, where other athletes experienced the rides, the aquarium and had ice cream cones.
Larry Eastland of the LDS Church's Southern California Public Affairs Council has been working on these events for a couple of years.
"What began for us in Southern California as a young single adult effort, soon became a church-wide effort," Eastland said. "This is the kind of event which makes it possible for all of us to sit down at the table and recognize what we have in common and then move forward to make a difference."
I said, 'Yes, bring them in, we'll feed them.' I love serving other people. It's one of the best things to enrich my faith and serve other people.
–Leah Shiffer, co-owner of Grey Block Pizza
Many restaurant owners offered to feed the athletes. The team from Malaysia filled Grey Block Pizza in Santa Monica. Owners Thomas and Leah Shiffer and their staff kept the pies coming.
"I said, 'Yes, bring them in, we'll feed them,'" said Leah Shiffer, with a huge smile. "I love serving other people. It's one of the best things to enrich my faith and serve other people."
Two of Utah's three athletes on the U.S. Special Olympics team are from Brigham City. Joyce Reis and Jesse Eden, were in Riverside to participate in Bocce ball. They play both individually and as a team. Reis said they experienced a warm welcome.
"More people greeted us," Reis said. "There were some cheerleaders there and a mascot."
Eden said he is excited to be a part of the Olympics. He was asked how it feels to be in the Olympics.
"Right now, that's the awesome part of it," Eden said. "So awesome, everybody watching you and cheering for you."
In Fountain Valley, a sea of orange greeted the athletes of team Netherlands early one morning.
Natasha Bruers, the sports director for Special Olympics Netherlands, described what her athletes experienced.
"That was very exciting for them," Bruers said. "And so we're going and everybody was on the street with orange colors and everybody wake up. It was such a warm welcome. It was really a surprise for us."
The strong interfaith community joined forces to make sure the visitors knew people here care about them. Father Christian Mondor of the Huntington Beach Interfaith Council said he was just happy to be a part of it.
"We're happy as an Interfaith Council to host this group here, especially the Latter-day Saints' community to welcome them so warmly as they have," he said.
In Valencia, A group playing Remo drums created a huge circle of sound in a Church cultural hall, helping the communities of Santa Clarita and Valencia welcome Special Olympians from four nations.
Charlie Masino is one of the young volunteers from the Valencia Stake.
"To have two things that bring so much happiness to my life, like special Olympics and this church, and have it together at the same time, it was just a great experience," he said.
Reis and Eden won five gold medals in their team sport of Bocce ball.
The Games end this weekend with closing ceremonies in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Sunday.