BELGRADE — Special Olympics athlete Ruth Spinelli smiled as she talked about competing in the long jump, triathlon and horseback riding for the 2018 Big Sky Area Spring Games.

A native of Virginia, Spinelli originally came to Montana because support for athletes with disabilities in her home state was limited. Since arriving in Montana, she has quickly found a warm and engaging community.

“I feel like I have a bigger family,” Spinelli said.

Spinelli was one of 245 athletes on 14 teams competing in this year’s games at Belgrade High School on Thursday and Friday. The games range from the 100-meter dash to golf to equestrian events.

Competition coordinator Kathlene Wood, who has been a volunteer with the organization since 2009, has seen countless athletes and volunteers changed as a result of the Special Olympics. She sees the event as an opportunity for community growth, lauding the equality and respect that the games promote.

“We live in a community that comes together, and the outpouring of support for this event is a great example of that… It’s incredible to see how involved people are,” said Woods, one of more than 100 volunteers.

This year’s games look to be the most inclusive yet, as it incorporates the newly introduced “unified events,” where athletes with intellectual disabilities compete alongside athletes without intellectual disabilities in sports such as running and soccer. In total, there will be 19 events.

This year also saw the introduction of the Special Olympics’ Youth Activation Committee. The new committee aims to increase outreach to local schools, encouraging volunteerism in students. The committee seems to be having an effect, with more than 60 students from Manhattan High School helping out.

Alean Skinner, a coach for several athletes, emphasized the importance of the event.

“In sports there is a lot of praise and recognition … the opportunity to feel the respect and pride when they cross that finish line is huge for the athletes,” Skinner said.

Skinner, who has been a volunteer with the organization since 2005, also works with the athletes outside of coaching. Her most recent endeavors include a puppet show raising awareness for the intellectually impaired, and a book she is co-writing with Spinelli highlighting the athletes of the Special Olympics.

Skinner also works with the athletes on public speaking to help them become “global messengers” for the Special Olympics, so that they can become more comfortable and capable at spreading awareness for the organization and its members.

Events for the Big Sky Area Spring Games will continue through 4 p.m., Friday, concluding with the triathlon at Eagle Mount in Bozeman. The Special Olympics also organizes winter games and summer games with sports including alpine skiing (a personal favorite of Spinelli’s), basketball and bowling.