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Kadena Special Olympics allows kids to be heros

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Brooke P. Beers
  • 18th Wing Public Affairs
Thousands of volunteers, supporters and special-needs athletes and artists from all over Japan, came to Kadena Air Base, Japan, Nov. 17 to participate in or support the 13th annual Kadena Special Olympics.

"This is an opportunity for the two communities to meet in joint service to the athletes and build a brother and sister hood like the ancient Okinawa proverb that says 'once we meet we are brothers and sisters forever'," said Brig. Gen. Matt Molloy, 18th Wing commander.

After the completion of the opening ceremony, the athletes were able to explore the field with their "hugger" and compete in events such as softball, hockey, basketball, and track and field.

Huggers are service members from around the base who volunteered to help and encourage special-needs athletes both young and old from Okinawa and the U.S. throughout the event.

Even though it began to rain, the Olympians kept high spirits and continued to compete.

For a young, smiling, Marlee McDaniel, daughter of the 18th Wing vice commander, this was the first year of competing in the Kadena Special Olympics.

"This is emotional for us. We've shied away in the past to protect her," said Col. Brain McDaniel, Marlee's dad. "But they say, 'If I can't win, let me be brave.'"

Marlee has Down syndrome, a genetic condition that causes her to have an extra chromosome, which affects the way the body and brain develop.

"This does not affect my military career," the father said. "We are part of an exceptional family member program and before every (permanent change of duty station) we make sure we have everything we need for Marlee."

The 7 year old loves to swim and run everywhere. She also takes tennis and ballet lessons and during KSO she competed in the 30 meter dash, tennis skills and the softball throw -- even though the rain.

"I think people have a misconception about special needs kids," said Deborah McDaniel, Marlee's mother. "They are just like any other child, and they just want to be part of a group or part of a team. People just need to give them that chance."

Throughout the years, Special Olympic events have given special-needs children a chance to be a part of something with others they can relate to. Beginning in 2000 with approximately 400 athletes and 600 volunteers, as an 18th Wing community goodwill initiative, the event has more than tripled in size and participation and even caught the attention of Dave Lenox, vice president of leadership development and education for the Special Olympics.

"(The KSO) is a really unique model," said Lenox, who traveled to Okinawa to check out the KSO in person. "It's community building at its core, and that's something that the rest of the Special Olympics is just now beginning to make as a priority. That's why I'm here, because it's one of the models we really want to try and replicate around the world."

Kadena Special Olympics brings the Okinawan and military communities together, said Lenox. It helps to build both communities by working together for a common goal: the experience of the athletes.

As Marlee competed in events throughout the day she ran with enthusiasm, interacted with volunteers, athletes and artists with charm and demonstrated the courage to others that may be still too timid to participate in these types of events.

Her father spoke of his daughter proudly, "Marlee has taught us how to be a hero."

(Airman 1st Class Malia Jenkins contributed to this article)

USAF. (U.S. Air Force Graphic by Rosario "Charo" Gutierrez)