Special Olympics: Winning a gold, winning at life

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Carolyn Viss
  • Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii Public Affairs
When 1,500 people volunteered to help with the 2011 Special Olympics Hawaii State Championships here Dec. 4 and 5, they gave 800 disabled athletes not only the chance to earn a gold medal, but also a shot at winning in life.

The event was held on both sides of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and the Marine Corps Base-Hawaii. Eighty to 90 percent of the volunteers were military members, said Dan Epstein, the manager of the tri-base event.

"Athletes do better in school, at home and in the workplace, the longer and more involved they are in Special Olympics," he said.

Mr. Epstein cited a recent study that showed employment, either part-time or full-time, among people with intellectual disabilities is around 10 percent overall; however, 50 percent of Special Olympics athletes are employed in either manner.

This staggering statistic makes volunteering for this event, which has been held here annually for about 15 years, a "no brainer," he said.

"The support we get from military members is phenomenal," Mr. Epstein said. "They have great facilities here. We have athletes who are staying on base and eating on base; we are using military buses, and we have access to three different bowling alleys, here on Pearl Harbor and at K-bay, as well as basketball courts at all three locations."

The athletes, ranging in age from 8 to 81, and their 300 coaches, from across Hawaii, participated throughout the weekend. Special Olympics organizers also host events for children as young as 3, Mr. Epstein said.

"Our athletes love it," he said. "We get a lot of folks who come back here year after year. It works both ways. The military volunteers get a lot out of it and love being a part of it, and many of these men and ladies get the chance to do Special Olympics throughout the states, and even overseas."

Master Sgt. Justin Helin, the 15th Medical Support Squadron NCO in charge of medical equipment repair, has volunteered for the games throughout his 17-year military career. This year was his second time on Oahu.

"I like helping people," was his explanation for why he does it. "It's amazing to see the love and compassion that people have for the athletes. It's very much a family atmosphere."

Because three major sporting events are held annually, including the summer games, Sergeant Helin said he meets many people, whether military or civilian, whom he gets to see again and again.

"It's like a three-times-per-year family reunion," he said. "There's also a huge sense of accomplishment; not just for the athletes but also for the volunteers. You can see from the smiles and hugs that they all love being here."