SOMS officers bring passion, expertise to games

  • Published
  • By Susan Griggs
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
Keesler's Special Olympics organization is like a mosaic of various shapes, textures and colors. Some volunteers are smooth from years of experience, while others are sparkling new. And when all the parts come together, it's a true work of art.

Keesler's project officers for the May 9-11 state games, Capt. Joshua Tate, Chaplain (Maj.) Robert Monagle and Jackie Pope, bring different talents and backgrounds to the leadership team.

Tate, an instructor in the 335th Training Squadron personnel officer course, is a relative newcomer to Special Olympics at Keesler. He arrived at Keesler two years ago and served as last year's alternate project officer.

"I've always looked for ways to get involved with the base and the community," said Tate, who's served in the Air Force for 12 years. "I typically do it through coaching youth sports, but thought Special Olympics might be a good way to give back."

The captain was very surprised to learn about Keesler's unique approach to hosting Special Olympics.

"I thought it would be similar to what we do on other bases where we help coordinate volunteers for games that are held off base," he explained. "At Keesler, we house the athletes in our dorms and most of the games happen here on base. "
For Tate, the biggest challenge is the early planning stage when leaders are faced with a multitude of responsibilities to be coordinated.

"You're hoping all the great people from last year return to take on the challenge again this year," he observed. "When we lose an experienced committee head, it's always a challenge trying to find the right replacement. That said, it always amazes me as people leave Special Olympics here at Keesler, there are about 10 new volunteers wanting to take their places - that speaks volumes about Keesler's volunteer spirit."
The captain is proud of Keesler's technical training students who open their dorms and their hearts to the Special Olympians each year.

"Watching our Airmen do anything and everything to help these athletes have a wonderful experience is very rewarding," Tate remarked. "You hear stories of Airmen providing their own clothes to athletes who may not have been fully prepared for the weekend, and it builds your faith in our Airmen and the future of the Air Force."

Monagle, the chapel's technical training branch chief, came to Keesler less than a year ago, but he's been involved with special needs children and adults for more than 20 years. He was commissioned as a chaplain in the Reserve in 1997 and came on active duty 12 years ago.

"I used to attend the same church as Eunice Shriver, the founder of Special Olympics, and her commitment and dedication to children with special needs were an inspiration to me," he remarked.

The chaplain said the biggest challenge he sees in planning the games is logistics.
"This year we'll host approximately 900 athletes and the whole event will require approximately 3,000 volunteers," he pointed out. "We're blessed at Keesler to have so many hard-working people dedicated to making this event is a success. We have some volunteers who've been involved in Special Olympics since it was first hosted at Keesler 28 years ago.

"It takes a lot of work to make this day a success," Monagle continued. "I've been impressed by the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. Many of these workers won't receive any recognition and that's the way they want it - this day is not about them, but about the athletes.

"An amazing group of people comes together to make this happen," he added. "It's very typical of military personnel; we do this not for self-glorification but to improve the lives of others."

The "corporate knowledge" for this year's program is Jackie Pope, a 29-year Keesler civilian who has been involved with Special Olympics for 16 years. She started in 1998 as the volunteer contact for the games and began chairing the program with a military member two years later. She now serves on the Mississippi Special Olympics board of directors.

Pope, the 81st Force Support Squadron's Airman and Family Readiness Center section chief, said, "Many people think that this is part of my job, but it isn't - it's something I do because I want to. I come in on my day off for meetings and work the entire weekend without compensation, as do all of our other volunteers. It's become an annual family for me, my husband and my sister."

A reduced force is making it more challenging to maintain an adequate volunteer manpower pool, but Keesler has managed to make it work for Special Olympics, according to Pope.

"We use our nonprior service Airmen as sponsors, pairing two Airmen to every athlete, and then maintain a volunteer force to assist with setup, logistics and other needs," she stated.

Tate, Monagle and Pope agree that the excitement and joy on the faces of the athletes keeps them coming back year after year. It's often a life-changing experience for first-time volunteers.

"You might be nervous if you've never interacted with a Special Olympian, but smiles and warm hugs from the athletes really take away most people's reservations," Tate remarked. "I always walk away learning so much from them about how to truly love other people and be grateful for the gift of life."

"These individuals are beautiful to work with and they remind us how happy we can be if we just focus on little things without making life too complicated," Monagle commented. "They'll inspire you and you'll feel better about yourself when you realize how little effort it takes on your part to improve the lives of others."

Pope stressed that for many Special Olympians, the event at Keesler is the only annual outing from their state home or regional center.

"It's rewarding to see their faces when they arrive at the base on Friday, meet their Airman sponsors, compete on Saturday and enjoy themselves at the victory dance that night," she said. "They want the same things we all do - to be accepted, loved and appreciated.

"We are always looking for volunteers," Pope added. "If nothing else, they can cheer the athletes as they compete. Many won't have family members here to support them, and they appreciate hearing the cheers and applause."
To volunteer, call 228-376-7667 (SOMS).