KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- “I’ve learned to put myself out there and give everything my all,” said Airman Basic Ashlyn Tran, 336th Training Squadron student. “From here on out, whenever I get nervous, I will remember back to my time here at Special Olympics and say ‘if the athletes can give it their all, then there’s no reason I couldn’t either.’”
At the beginning of the 2016 Special Olympics Mississippi games, held on Keesler for the 30th year, the 336th TRS Airmen sponsors lined up outside their dorm to pair up with athletes. Tran and Senior Airman Hashim Mefleh, 336th TRS student, didn’t waste any time to find a Special Olympics athlete for them to sponsor.
“Tran and I picked the first athlete off the bus and Paula Carpenter just happened to be that athlete,” said Mefleh.
Carpenter was introverted at first, but soon warmed up to her new caregivers for the weekend.
“When I first met Paula, she seemed shy because of the new environment and the new people,” Tran said. “After a while though, every now and then she’d scoot close and lean her head on my shoulder.”
After their first meeting, Carpenter, Mefleh and Tran got ready for the opening ceremony parade; a big spectacle where all of Mississippi’s districts are introduced and the Olympic Flame is lit.
The next day was a big day for Carpenter; she was competing in three swimming events and she was ready to race.
“I can’t wait to swim,” she said. “I’m going to do my best.”
Mefleh and Tran stayed close by and pumped her up with tips and words of encouragement.
Carpenter’s first race was a 25 meter freestyle relay, where her team won bronze.
“She won bronze in the 25 meter relay, silver in the 50 meter freestyle and gold in the 50 meter backstroke,” Tran explained. “I am so proud of her and her hard work. She’s been telling me how hard she was practicing since last year and she definitely showed it off in the pool.”
Prior to the backstroke, Carpenter didn’t have very high expectations for herself. That’s when Mefleh stepped in, continually offering kind words and motivation for the coming events.
“All day long she’d been telling me ‘I can’t do the backstroke,’” Mefleh said. “I told her she didn’t have to worry about anyone else in the pool besides herself because that’s all that matters. Once she finished her race and got out of the pool she looked at me, smiled, and said ‘I only looked over three times! You were right, it worked!’”
“She was clapping and cheering on and seemed to really enjoy it,” Tran said.
“To be able to experience that joy with her and knowing that she learned something from me . . . you can’t ever replace that feeling,” Mefleh added.
Once all her events were over, they headed back to the triangle area for dinner and a quick nap before the evening’s closing ceremony and dance.
While at the dining facility, Carpenter had a special request.
“When we were eating, she told me she wanted me to be her first dance which took me by surprise,” said Mefleh. “So once we got out there and the dance started, we started dancing and she had a blast.”
Some of best moments Tran had with Carpenter was after the dance when it was quieter and she didn’t feel the pressure of everyone around her.
“We played Elvis Presley in my room after the dance and we had our own one-on-one dance party,” said Tran. “I think moments like that are what I’m going to remember the most.”
The relationship between Carpenter and her sponsors had flourished since they first met. The trio have plenty of memories to hold on to and the soul touching experience has certainly left a life changing impact.
“I’m truly blessed to be her sponsor,” said Mefleh. “It’s been a great opportunity to be able to participate and get involved in the athletes’ events. A couple of coaches came by and told me thank you and I just said ‘no thank you for bringing the athletes here and allowing us the opportunity to be a part of the Special Olympics’.”
In the beginning, Mefleh and Tran didn’t know their athlete would have such an impact on their lives in as little as three days. Now they have a new friend who has touched their heart and taught them a great lesson.
“I was so proud of her and everything she has done, and I was honored to have been her sponsor. I love her!” said Mefleh.
“I hope she doesn’t ever change,” Tran said with a smile. “She is so amazing and has the biggest heart. She taught me to put myself out there and to give everything my all. It’s been an incredible weekend and I will remember her forever.”