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The Special Olympics New York Summer Games are returning to Buffalo for the next two summers, and organizers hope the hundreds of area residents who cheered and volunteered the last time the event was here more than 10 years ago turn out again to make them a success.

"It is a thrill for us to bring the games back to the western part of the state," Neil J. Johnson, president and chief executive officer of Special Olympics New York said Friday.

"The residents, businesses and leaders of the community have always supported our mission, which has enabled us to provide quality competitive experiences for our athletes," he said.

More than 2,200 athletes and coaches, including 200 from the region, are expected to attend the games, which will be held this June 14-17 and June 13-16, 2002. The University at Buffalo North Campus in Amherst will be the site for many events and competitors will stay in the UB dormitories.

The Special Olympics were founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver to provide people with mental impairments an opportunity to participate in competitive sports. The New York Special Olympics -- now the largest chapter in the United States -- were organized a year later by Dorothy Buehring Phillips.

The state summer games were last held in Buffalo in 1987 and 1988. The state winter games were held here in 1996 and 1997.

"I'm thrilled to have the Special Olympics here," Mayor Anthony M. Masiello said at a news conference in the Buffalo Visitor Center at the Market Arcade.

"I'm thrilled to have the 2,200 athletes participating and most of all thrilled to give something from our hearts and minds to these young people so they can compete," the mayor said.

Erie County Sheriff Patrick Gallivan and his wife, Mary Pat, are co-chairpersons of the games. Also attending the news conference was County Executive Joel A. Giambra.

Organizers are hoping to enlist 2,000 local volunteers to assist in the games, performing tasks ranging from staffing competitions and assisting at venues to being personal cheerleaders and escorts for contestants.

When the games were held here in the 1980s, many volunteers described the experience as one of the most enriching in their lives. Anyone interested in helping is asked to call (800) 836-6976.

Danny Wegman, president of Wegmans Food Markets and an honorary co-chairman of the event, said the games have had an important influence on him.

"When I began working with these folks and you realize they have some mental retardation problems and you see how they excel, you learn to look at your life differently," he said. "I know it's going to change all of us and make us better people.

"We all have to deal with problems. It's how we deal with them that makes us who we are. I'd say get involved. It'll be the most uplifting experience you'll have."

UB will be the site of basketball, powerlifting, track and field, tennis and aquatic events, as well as the site of the opening and closing ceremonies. Volleyball will take place at the Amherst Pepsi Center. The Thruway lanes will host bowling.

It costs Special Olympics a minimum of $400,000 to put on each summer's games, Johnson said, and corporate support is vital. Rich Products is joining Wegmans as a major sponsor, and other companies that will assist in underwriting the cost include Cingular Wireless, Adelphia Communications and the Buffalo Sabres.

"The Special Olympics (have) a long history of helping families and we're excited to be partnering with them to bring these athletes together," said Robert Rich Jr., president of Rich Products, who joins his wife, Mindy, as an honorary co-chairman of the event. "We encourage our entire community to rally around this effort."

The event also promises to be a financial boost for Buffalo, said John Dandes, chairman of the Greater Buffalo Convention and Visitors Bureau. Spending by visiting athletes, coaches and their families is expected to pump $2.1 million into the local economy each summer it's here.

"We're thrilled," Dandes said. "It's a real opportunity to not only bring families together, but from a business perspective it's a great opportunity. It comes at a time of year when Western New York really shines. It's all about showcasing the community."

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