Special Olympics sponsors find volunteering rewarding

  • Published
  • By Susan Griggs
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
Fourteen years ago, as a technical training student, Tech. Sgt. Julie Hammond had her first experience as a Special Olympics volunteer. Now, as a military training leader in the 81st Training Group, she's responsible for guiding approximately 2,000 students in sponsoring athletes as Keesler hosts the Mississippi Special Olympics Summer Games May 10-12.

"If you're not familiar with the ins and outs of the Special Olympics here at Keesler, there are committees for just about everything you can think of," Hammond explained. "This year marks 27 years of a community partnership with Mississippi Special Olympics, so it runs like a well-oiled machine."

In her seventh year as a Special Olympics volunteer, Hammond originally headed the rain plan committee, but became responsible for housing about 250 athletes in the dorms as a 338th Training Squadron MTL. This is her third year in charge of housing all athletes and coaches for the games and coordinating 81st TRG student sponsors.

"When I was an Airman and told that I'd be sponsoring a Special Olympian, I had reservations because I had never been around a person with special needs," recalled Hammond, who was enrolled in the radar maintenance apprentice course back in 1999. "I wasn't sure if I would be able to take care of them the way they needed me to due to my lack of knowledge and experience.

"I definitely wasn't 'sold' immediately, but I did have faith in my leadership that they wouldn't expect anything more of me than they knew I could do," she continued. "And I've always believed that God doesn't give you opportunities or put you in situations that you can't handle."

Hammond credits the student sponsors in making it possible for the athletes to spend two nights on base as the weekend's sport and social activities unfold.

"The base is full of volunteers on Saturday, helping to make this event a special time to remember for the athletes, but they all go home after the day's events," she pointed out. "Our Airmen continue to make the weekend a special time by housing the athletes in their rooms and supporting them 24/7 all weekend."

Two Airmen sponsor one athlete in their room for the entire weekend. Coaches and nurses are also housed in the dorms with the Airmen and athletes. MTLs provide around-the-clock coverage and assist their student volunteers.

Students meet their athletes on May 10 and have some time to get acquainted before the evening's opening ceremonies. Saturday, student sponsors escort and cheer on their athletes at competition venues on and off base. They accompany the athletes to meals, activities in the Olympic Village and the victory dance.

"Our Airman sponsors are the backbone of the games," emphasized Maj. Tracy Snyder, 81st Diagnostics and Therapeutics Squadron, Keesler's Special Olympics project officer. "The relationships that develop between the airman sponsors and athletes are a key component of what makes the weekend a success. The spirit of giving and teamwork is clearly evident when you see Airmen cheering on their athlete and the look of joy in the athlete's eyes."