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Pope Francis smiles with the iconic Special Olympics Unified Ball during a ceremony in Rome with Special Olympics Italy athletes prior to the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles.

Pope Francis smiles with the iconic Special Olympics Unified Ball during a ceremony in Rome with Special Olympics Italy athletes prior to the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles.

This week, when Pope Francis meets with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House, he’ll be speaking to a packed audience — including several Special Olympics athletes.

Athletes from California, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Wyoming and Washington, DC, will be part of this special event.

In addition, along with numerous government officials, there will also be several longtime Special Olympics supporters attending Wednesday’s ceremony in downtown Washington, D.C. These include several officers with Special Olympics Programs and the Law Enforcement Torch Run (LETR) for Special Olympics, along with many members of the Knights of Columbus.

For athlete Amy Wollmershauser, this will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “I’m so excited,” she told Tulsa World news. “It means so much to meet the pope because I’m Catholic and he seems to care about everything.” She’ll be making the trip from Oklahoma with her dad, retired Tulsa police officer Mark Wollmershauser, a past director of the Law Enforcement Torch Run.

Following the outdoor White House ceremony, there will be a papal parade – in which Pope Francis will tour the nation’s capital along a specially designated route. The spectacle is expected to attract many thousands of well-wishers from all around the US.

Pope Francis will be the third Pope to visit the White House. Elected in 2013, he has shown himself to be a great supporter of Special Olympics.

Ahead of the 2015 World Summer Games in Los Angeles, Pope Francis held a unique audience at the Vatican with Special Olympics Italia athletes, along with Chairman Tim Shriver. The pope spoke of the importance of “different abilities” and overcoming limitations. In his words, “You’ve turned sports into an experience of growth….that will ultimately improve (their) lives.”

Just over 50 years ago, a young man named David Jordalen was the first person with an intellectual disability (ID) to be formally welcomed to the White House – a major milestone. Special Olympics continues to focus on changing attitudes and working toward lasting inclusion for people with ID — everywhere.

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