In May 2012, a handful of Special Olympics Montana athletes lined up in the gymnasium at McKinley Elementary, welcomed to the school by the applause and cheers of the student body.
"We had a school assembly for them and brought in a few teams to introduce them and speak to the classes," said Monnyca Kramer, a research room teacher there who helped organize the event.
The athletes were from a pair of teams from the Helena and Lewistown areas adopted by McKinley as they visited Billings to compete in the Special Olympics Montana State Summer Games.
The Adopt-A-Team program matches up schools in the area with teams of Special Olympics athletes from around the state during the summer games, giving the students a direct connection to the games and the athletes an anchor to the community.
More than a dozen schools in Yellowstone County will adopt at least one team and hold events for them for the 2013 games, scheduled for May 14-17, holding various events for them and cheering them on at the games.
"They can do something big, they can do something small," said Tammy Grimm, Special Olympics program coordinator for School District 2. "As long as they make the athletes feel welcome, because it's all about them."
McKinley will adopt two teams — the TriCounty Wolves and the Great Falls Hornets — and will use last year's activities as a template.
In addition to the assembly, the school made signs and goodie bags to welcome the athletes, sent students to a party for athletes and law enforcement officials the night before the games started and cheered them on during the opening ceremonies.
"Our students are so accepting of everyone," Kramer said. "They just light up and they can do all of this for other students. They just want to be a part of it."
Third grade teacher Jamie Barnes has a son who competes in Special Olympics. She said that during last year's games, they sent a group of kids over to Daylis Stadium to cheer on athletes as they competed.
"We took our third-graders over there and they made signs to cheer on not only the Billings kids that they know but also our two teams," she said. "We had parents in tears that we would be there to support their kids, to tell them how awesome they were doing."
Grimm said that the athletes look forward to being adopted by schools each year.
Working with Billings athletes within SD2, she's helped them get ready for the Summer Games for years and hears the same thing each time.
"We've always been so welcomed wherever we go with this," Grimm said. "That's the first thing the athletes always asked me. 'Do we get to be adopted? Do we get to go to a school again?'"
Barnes said the feeling is mutual with the students.
"Their excitement for these athletes is genuine," she said.
In addition to giving athletes a positive experience, the games' host city, the kids get something out of working with the teams, which can sometimes include as many as 30 or 40 members, that they might not in school, Grimm said.
"It shows them that there's more to life," she said. "School is important, class is important, but they don't always see that there are things like this out there. The athletes, they see all of this. It's not all about winning. It's about feeling like they're part of something. This is true meaning of athletics."