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Keesler Hosts Mississippi Special Olympics

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- Back in August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, including Keesler, it seemed doubtful that the base would be able to host the annual event for the 21st year in a row. 

The weekend of May 5-7 included temperatures in the 70s, very little rain and most importantly for Keesler it featured the 2006 Mississippi Special Olympic State Summer Games here. 

According to Maj. Terri Raines, Special Olympics planning committee chairman, planning for the event had not gotten into full swing in August, but discussions had been made. 

"Technically, planning for this event started the day after the 2005 Mississippi State Special Olympics ended," Major Raines said. "After the hurricane, the base had to shift focus to recovering and humanitarian efforts. It was around December that we decided to start talking about the games." 

She said that it took a lot of research for the event to take off as planned. 

"A committee was formed to look at the best place to host the event, and other sites were discussed, including holding the event at a nearby university," Major Raines said. "Ultimately, the committee provided enough evidence to prove that Team Keesler could host the event. We are very excited that we've not let down this special community." 

She said that after the research was done to determine the base would be able to support the event, a plan was devised. 

"Our various sub-committees started the long arduous work of inventorying equipment to ascertain loss from Hurricane Katrina or just wear and tear from repeated use," Major Raines said. "There's not one squadron on this base that hasn't put forth a great deal of effort to make this happen and I'm personally grateful for everyone's dedication to the event. 

"A committee of more than 50 members and sub-committees taking the team upwards of 200 strong were the backbone of this year's event," she said. 

The damage Katrina caused led to some concerns, Major Raines pointed out. 

"We were worried about bed space for the athletes, coaches, and distinguished visitors, as well as lodging off-base, dining establishments for the athletes' families; sheer numbers to support the volunteer efforts; the loss of some of the previous sponsors and the availability of raw resources. 

"Of paramount concern was the message that Keesler would be giving," Major Raines continued. "If we did host this year's event, were we losing focus of the personal problems all of Team Keesler. The commander ultimately had a tough call to make."
Major Raines stresses that the games are a team effort: Team Keesler and its supporting community. 

There is absolutely no way this event could have occurred without the help of Blioxi and Ocean Springs Police Departments, sponsors throughout the state and especially the Gulf Coast, the Skate Zone and the Yacht Club in Ocean Springs and the Biloxi Natatorium," she said. 

Major Raines also said that it was important for the base to host this event to show just how far this area has come since the hurricane. 

"We've been surrounded by the trauma and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for eight months now," she said. "It's easy to get lost in that world of loss and devastation. These games afford us the opportunity to celebrate the human spirit and for a short weekend put away out own obstacles and give something to someone else." 

Airman Basic Keith Medina, 335th Training Squadron, served as a mentor to Howie Starnes, a participant (as well as a member of the volleyball team which earned first place overall). Each athlete has a mentor assigned to them. They spend the entire weekend together doing activities. Airman Medina enjoyed his time with Howie. 

"We tossed the football around for a little while on Friday," Airman Medina said. "I enjoyed my time with him." 

Starnes, from Vicksburg, Miss.., also enjoyed the time spent with Airman Medina.
"I'm happy I won," Starnes said. "I'm also happy I have a new friend." 

Major Raines thought that the event went well all around. 

"Thanks to everyone, what was once feared to be 'Mission Impossible' can be considered 'Mission Complete,'" she said.