Barbara Bickle, 24, works at a sheltered workshop run by the Montgomery County Association for Retarded Citizens near her group home in Rockville.

Mary Byrne, a 15-year-old from Damascus, studies basic skills and vocational training at the special Longview School in Gaithersburg.

Karen Caruso, 21, is completing her last year at the special Rock Terrace High School in Rockville, where she is undergoing evaluation for placement in a sheltered workshop.

John Ramsey, 24, has been institutionalized all his life and now lives in a cottage at Great Oaks Center, a state-run institution for the mentally retarded in Silver Spring. Ramsey participates actively in sports, social activities and prevocational training classes.

That might be the end of the story for the four except for Special Olympics, a program run on the local, state and national levels by thousands of volunteers to offer the retarded a chance to benefit from athletic competition and the social experience it provides. The Special Olympics program was created in 1968 by the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation.

The climax of this year's activities comes tomorrow and Saturday at Towson State University in Baltimore County, when Bickle, Byrne, Caruso, Ramsey and other local residents join 1,600 special athletes and 2,000 volunteers at the 12th annual Maryland State Summer Special Olympics.Chosen on the basis of their standing in local competitions, 120 athletes from Montgomery and 165 from Prince George's counties also will participate in the two-day event.

Maryland Special Olympics has felt a financial pinch this year, said development director Ann Forthuber.

"Our traditional sources (of most funding) -- corporate and foundation grants -- have been stretched this year as the reduction in the federal budget has increased the competition for private funds," said Forthuber. The annual budget for the state program -- $131,000 in 1980 -- was drawn entirely from private funds donated by businesses, charitable organizations, foundations and individuals.

Athletes may be sponsored by individuals at tomorrow's and Saturday's games at a cost of $36.50.

"This (sponsoring of athletes) is one contribution that provides immediate results," said Forthuber.

Tomorrow's schedule of events includes competition in frisbee throwing, gymnastics, swimming and volleyball as well as team relays, a one-mile run and special running events for athletes using canes or in wheelchairs.

The day's events will close with a disco for athletes and chaperones from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m., sponsored by Baltimore disc jockey John Pattie and the Music Pak.

Saturday's events begin at 9 a.m. in the Towson stadium with a traditional Olympic-style torch-lighting ceremony led by Otis Wilson, a 41-year-old retarded adult who teaches vocational courses to retarded children in Talbot County on the Eastern Shore.

Following the torch-lighting ceremony 120 members of the Damascus High School Marching Band will lead a parade of all participating athletes and 200 coaches around the stadium grounds.

American Legion color guards will march between each of the 21 counties or divisions participating. Clowns, mimes, professional athletes and entertainers provided by private businesses also will take part in the parade.

Special Olympics events are open to the public and are scheduled for Burdick Hall on Friday and for the Towson Stadium and grounds on Saturday. Hours are 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. tomorrow and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday. For information or directions, call Maryland Special Olympics in Baltimore at (301) 661-4200. To sponsor an individual athlete (cost: $36.50) or to give one emotional support by acting as a "hugger" (volunteers must be over 14 years old), call Ann Forthuber at the same number .

For information locally, call Montgomery County coordinator Ralph Crawson at 279-3171 or Prince George's County coordinator Bob Janus at 459-1617. To sponsor an athlete at the local level (cost $19.50) or to act as a "hugger." again call Crawson or Janus .