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Bridging the gap: SOMS promotes unity at the Summer Games 2019

Serenity Stennis, Area 11 athlete, gets the baton to complete the 4x400 relay during the Special Olympics Mississippi 2019 Summer Games at Keelser Air Force Base, Mississippi, May 10, 2019. This is the first year that unified relays have been done during the Special Olympics Mississippi Summer Games. It is a product of a program that allows special olympics athletes and able-bodied athletes from local Mississippi high schools come together to compete in a 4x400 relay. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jenay Randolph)

Serenity Stennis, Area 11 athlete, gets the baton to complete the 4x400 relay during the Special Olympics Mississippi 2019 Summer Games at Keelser Air Force Base, Mississippi, May 10, 2019. This is the first year that unified relays have been done during the Special Olympics Mississippi Summer Games. It is a product of a program that allows special olympics athletes and able-bodied athletes from local Mississippi high schools come together to compete in a 4x400 relay. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jenay Randolph)

Area 11 unified relay team members pose for a group photo after competing in the first-ever unified relay during the Special Olympics Mississippi 2019 Summer Games, May 11, 2019 at Keelser Air Force Base, Mississippi. This is the first year that unified relays have been done during the Special Olympics Mississippi Summer Games. It is a product of a program that allows special olympics athletes and able-bodied athletes from local Mississippi high schools come together to compete in a 4x400 relay. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jenay Randolph)

Area 11 unified relay team members pose for a group photo after competing in the first-ever unified relay during the Special Olympics Mississippi 2019 Summer Games, May 11, 2019 at Keelser Air Force Base, Mississippi. This is the first year that unified relays have been done during the Special Olympics Mississippi Summer Games. It is a product of a program that allows special olympics athletes and able-bodied athletes from local Mississippi high schools come together to compete in a 4x400 relay. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jenay Randolph)

Area 11 special olympic athletes compete in an unified relay during the Special Olympics Mississippi 2019 Summer Games, May 11, 2019 at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. This is the first year that unified relays have been done during the Special Olympics Mississippi Summer Games. It is a product of a program that allows special olympics athletes and able-bodied athletes from local Mississippi high schools come together to compete in a 4x400 relay. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jenay Randolph)

Area 11 special olympic athletes compete in an unified relay during the Special Olympics Mississippi 2019 Summer Games, May 11, 2019 at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. This is the first year that unified relays have been done during the Special Olympics Mississippi Summer Games. It is a product of a program that allows special olympics athletes and able-bodied athletes from local Mississippi high schools come together to compete in a 4x400 relay. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jenay Randolph)

Nick Berry, Area 11 athlete, competes in the unified relay during the Special Olympics Mississippi 2019 Summer Games, May 11, 2019 at Keelser Air Force Base, Mississippi. This is the first year that unified relays have been done during the Special Olympics Mississippi Summer Games. It is a product of a program that allows special olympics athletes and able-bodied athletes from local Mississippi high schools come together to compete in a 4x400 relay. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jenay Randolph)

Nick Berry, Area 11 athlete, competes in the unified relay during the Special Olympics Mississippi 2019 Summer Games, May 11, 2019 at Keelser Air Force Base, Mississippi. This is the first year that unified relays have been done during the Special Olympics Mississippi Summer Games. It is a product of a program that allows special olympics athletes and able-bodied athletes from local Mississippi high schools come together to compete in a 4x400 relay. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jenay Randolph)

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --

The Special Olympics Mississippi 2019 Summer Games is back to the Gulf Coast with a twist, May 10-11 here. This year for the first-time ever a unified relay team competes in the Special Olympics Summer Games.

“The summer games is a huge partnership between Keesler and the Mississippi community that allows Keesler to have a sense of purpose in the community and the community to see that Keesler supports the community projects,” explained Jackie Pope, co-project officer for the Special Olympics Mississippi 2019 Summer Games. “Keesler was the first base to do Special Olympics the way it’s done now and other bases have modeled after. Still after 33 years, this event is the highlight of Keesler and the athletes’ year and it is amazing to experience.”

SOMS brings over 900 athletes, their coaches and families to Keesler where the athletes are housed in the training squadron dormitories and paired with two Airman Sponsors. This builds relationships and sometimes lifelong friendships.

“We want them to learn at a young age that just because someone is different from you that doesn’t mean that you need to shy away from them,” expressed Leigh Ann Lamm, SOMS 2019 staff lead. “So this year is the first year we are offering what we call unified teams. The teams have two Special Olympic athletes and two unified partners, able-bodied student athletes, competing on the same team in a 4x400 relay.”

An additional partnership was added with the Unified Champion Schools program this year. The program promotes inclusion throughout the school system with special needs athletes to educate them on the learning differences and create a comfortability among both special needs and able-bodied students.

There are a large number of unified schools starting up in Mississippi. The program is bringing awareness to schools and school districts because it was not offered before. They are able to work together for growth and learning experiences on both sides.

“It was really fun just being able to come out and meet new people at the Special Olympics,” expressed Jalissa Gillard, a junior at Saltillo High School and an able-bodied athlete on the unified team. “I love it! I came out here to support and run with them so that we can come in first place. I just want them to know we are here for them. We want them to be happy and not worry because they are not alone.”

Despite the weather, SOMS continued to bring joy to the athletes and gave them the opportunity to experience it with their peers on unified teams.