Special Olympics volunteers often return year after year

  • Published
  • By Susan Griggs
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
One remarkable aspect about Special Olympics at Keesler is the number of volunteers who return year after year to make it a memorable weekend for about 900 athletes and coaches. Many veteran volunteers are gearing up to make this year's games on May 9-11, the best in the 28 years that Keesler has sponsored the statewide event.

The granddaddy of the base's legion of Special Olympics volunteers is George Landrum, a 338th Training Squadron training specialist, who began his journey with Special Olympics back in 1982 while still on active duty. That was even before Keesler became host to the state competition in 1986.

He's worn many hats as a Special Olympics volunteer - hugger/catcher, concession coordinator, committee chair, volunteer coordinator, satellite site manager, nerve center driver coordinator, rules committee member and a troubleshooter for the project officers. Even while he was assigned with the 338th TRS detachment at Fort Gordon, Ga., from 2007-10, he returned to Keesler every year to help with the state games.

"This program is unique - it's the only one where athletes live in the dorm with the sponsors for the weekend," Landrum pointed out. "In addition, this program has seeded similar events all over the world. Some get involved here and the hook is set. They transfer to another base and look for the Special Olympics committee. If there isn't one, they start one."

To potential volunteers, he suggests, "This may be one of the best things you ever do in your life - it will certainly be one of the most fun."

Landrum's 338th TRS colleague, Randy Simmons, got involved with Special Olympics in 1983, when Keesler just hosted area competitions. When Keesler became the site of the state games, Simmons worked in the nerve center until 2001, when he took a back seat role as "an additional set of eyes" during the event. With few exceptions, he's been the master of ceremonies at Saturday's closing ceremonies for many years.

A little boy with Down syndrome in Simmons' childhood neighborhood was a motivation for his involvement with Special Olympics.

"I was the only kid in the neighborhood that ever took the time to stop and play with him," he recalled. "Then we had a niece with developmental issues born into our family. I knew she would be participating in Special Olympics back in our home state of Oklahoma. She would need volunteers there to run the program, so all I could do was to pay it forward and volunteer here."

In describing the rewards from being involved in Special Olympics, Simmons declared, "Go to any awards stand and watch medals being placed around an athlete's neck - it's priceless."

The state games at Keesler always fall on the same weekend as Mother's Day - and often his wife's birthday.

"I worked 16-hour days for many years and I had to make it up to her later," he admitted.
Simmons said the worst reason for volunteering is just because an Airman needs a "bullet" on an officer or enlisted performance report or a civilian appraisal.

"Next year you'll come back for all the right reasons," he insisted. "Give this program a chance and it will change your life."

Simmons emphasized that volunteers, not just the athletes, benefit from participating.

"Most athletes have been here many times before - I'm guessing only 20 percent are first-timers," he explained. "What's overlooked from year to year is our 100 percent turnover of Airmen sponsors. For most, the weekend is their first opportunity to experience being with people with challenges. If you watch closely, you can see the change in attitude in the Airmen from the self-centered mentality and complaining about being 'volun-told' for the weekend, to the opening of their hearts and minds - and wallets - as the weekend draws to a close. Many of them will freely volunteer the next time they have a chance."

An 18-year volunteer from the 336th TRS, Chris Tyson, was initially inspired to get involved with Special Olympics when her squadron sponsored several events. In her current duties, she helps with the setup for the opening ceremonies and organizes the marching order of all athletes into field position. In the past, she's worked several squadron game events, the food tent, the water buffalo and medal ceremony.

"It's not hard at all to be a volunteer at the games," she remarked. "It just takes a little patience with the athletes. The most rewarding part of the weekend is watching all the athletes enjoy themselves."

To prospective volunteers, Tyson urged, "Do it! It's a very rewarding experience."
To volunteer, call 228-376-7667 (SOMS).