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Kadena Special Olympics creates bond for new Airman

Airman 1st Class Matthew Renfro gives Yuto Uehara a hug for luck before Yuto's next event Nov. 6, 2010, during the Kadena Special Olympics at Kadena Air Base, Japan. Airman Renfro was a volunteer hugger for the event. He is assigned to the 18th Munitions Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Tara A. Williamson)

Airman 1st Class Matthew Renfro gives Yuto Uehara a hug for luck before Yuto's next event Nov. 6, 2010, during the Kadena Special Olympics at Kadena Air Base, Japan. Airman Renfro was a volunteer hugger for the event. He is assigned to the 18th Munitions Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Tara A. Williamson)

Airman 1st Class Matthew Renfro runs with Yuto Uehara and his father in the 30-meter dash Nov. 6, 2010, during the Kadena Special Olympics at Kadena Air Base, Japan. Airman Renfro was paired with Yuto, a young athlete during the event.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Tara A. Williamson)

Airman 1st Class Matthew Renfro runs with Yuto Uehara and his father in the 30-meter dash Nov. 6, 2010, during the Kadena Special Olympics at Kadena Air Base, Japan. Airman Renfro was paired with Yuto, a young athlete during the event. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Tara A. Williamson)

KADENA AIR BASE, Japan (AFNS) -- The excitement at Kadena Air Base's Risner Fitness Complex peaked Nov. 6 as the 837 athletes participating in the Kadena Special Olympics took the field. There weren't many more excited than one Airman from the 18th Munitions Squadron.

Airman 1st Class Matthew Renfro, originally from Spokane, Wash., is new to the island of Okinawa. He showed up to be a "hugger" to support the athletes. Athletes in all age groups were paired with "huggers," who acted as their personal cheerleaders.

"When I first showed up I was nervous about meeting my athlete and his or her family," Airman Renfro said. "Let alone the fact I didn't know how to speak a word of their language."

It was Airman Renfro's first time volunteering with the Kadena Special Olympics, and he was paired with a 7-year old boy named Yuto Uehara.

"The moment I met Yuto, I didn't know if he was going to interact with me at all," Airman Renfro said. "He was very shy and avoided me the best he could, but within a short period of time he was all about me; (eventually) we couldn't get enough of each other."

Airman Renfro described Yuto as an energetic little boy, like any other child he's ever known. He said if not for the event, he never would have guessed Yuto had a disability at all.

As they lined up for the 30-meter dash, Yuto, already holding his father's hand, made sure to take Airman Renfro's hand as well. Though not something Airman Renfro said he is used to, the small act felt to be second nature at the time.

"When Yuto held my hand for the first time," Airman Renfro explained, "I knew we were going to have a great time together that day, despite our inability to communicate (in the same language)."

Though the Special Olympics were only here for the day, Airman Renfro said he had become attached to young Yuto. And although the two had just met, they were running around as if they had been friends for years.

"Despite the language barrier, it's still fun interacting with the athletes," Airman Renfro said.

Volunteering with the Kadena Special Olympics wasn't about getting another bullet on his list, but about showing support for those who aren't appreciated on a regular basis the way he thinks they should be, he added.

By the time Yuto's second event came around, Airman Renfro was carrying around the young boy as if he were family. A tight hug before his event showed Yuto how much Airman Renfro was there to support him.

After all of the day's events, Yuto gave another hug and a high-five to Airman Renfro and ran back to the rest of his family. Yuto's father, with an appreciative smile and an "arigato gozaimasu", gave his thanks to Airman Renfro and followed his son.

The gratifying feeling from the day is just one of the reasons Airman Renfro said he will be volunteering again while he is stationed on Okinawa. He said he hopes to be able to find more events like the Kadena Special Olympics with which to help.

"Next year I'm going to volunteer in the hopes of seeing Yuto and his family again," he said, "and maybe make another friend whose memory will stick with me for years to come."

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