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By Darren Harrison

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(March 12, 2010)

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WASHINGTON (NNS - March 6. 2010) -- Volunteers gathered at a Hyattsville, Md. bowling alley Feb. 25 for the chance to help D.C. Special Olympics hold a bowling tournament.

The more than 40 volunteers, all military service members, encouraged the athletes with high fives, coaching tips and cheering regardless of whether the athlete knocked down all the pins or none.

Olivia Hunter, regional community service program coordinator for Naval District Washington (NDW) said that the Navy has been supporting D.C. Special Olympics for several years and the fact that the tournament is held during the week, places the Navy in a key position in which to help with the event.

"Naval District Washington is very dedicated to the community and this is the kind of project that cannot operate without the support of volunteers," Hunter said. "Our active duty service members are able to participate during the week to support this event because it is a command sponsored program."

For at least one of the Navy volunteers the chance to help out carried extra significance.

Chief Hospital Corpsman Scott Thrasher, part of a group of volunteers with the Bureau of Medicine, (BUMED) and Surgery Chief Petty Officers Association, said that his step-sister is a challenged athlete living in a group home in Wyoming and has been a participant in Special Olympics for 20 years.

"If it were not for volunteers from BUMED and the other naval organizations then [D.C. Special Olympics] would not be able to put on these events," Thrasher said.

Tom Kling, senior director for programs and sports for Special Olympics in the District of Columbia, said that the participation of the military services in their program allows a larger pool of athletes to participate in these events.

"Without the military's help and assistance we couldn't provide the opportunities for the over 485 athletes that are in this competition over the course of three championship days," Kling said. "Before we had their support, we could have only had a competition for about 150 to 180 athletes at one time and this support gives us the ability to not eliminate people from the championship competition but to include relatively everybody that has gone through the training and met the minimum training requirements."

According to Kling, even if athletes had met the minimum training requirements they might still have been cut from the competition because the D.C. Special Olympics did not have enough staff, space or volunteer support. With the volunteer support of the U.S. Navy they were able to extend the number of days of competition at a larger venue so they could incorporate more athletes into the championship competition, Kling said.

"With the number of volunteers here today I have coverage so that each and every one of the athletes has the opportunity to meet somebody new, have somebody who is dedicated to providing a first-class competition experience and have somebody who actually cares about their well-being," Kling said. "Our athletes encounter on a daily basis not a position of respect. They actually don't get any respect at all because of their intellectual disability but when they come here they are totally respected, not only as a person but as an athlete so they can show off what their abilities are, not what their disabilities are."

In addition to BUMED, the event was also supported by Fleet Readiness Center, Mid-Atlantic and the U.S. Navy Ceremonial Guard. Gunner's Mate 3rd Class Alex Rosengren, a member of the U.S. Navy Ceremonial Guard, said the sign-up sheet for volunteers at the event was filled within two hours of it being posted.

The Guard contributed 15 volunteers to the event, Fleet Readiness Center, Mid-Atlantic supplied seven volunteers and BUMED brought 10 chief petty officers, the most they could fit in their vehicle. In addition Hunter said that service members of the Marine Corp and Coast Guard were also contributing their time to the event.

Anthony Sokenu, associate director of sports for D.C. Special Olympics, spoke of the lasting effects that volunteers take away from participating in their events.

"The benefits for the volunteers are the same as the benefits for the staff. When you work with a Special Olympian your idea of sports just totally changes and you get to believe that anything is possible," Sokenu said. "We have athletes of very low ability. In a sport or a competition like this, you get to see low ability athletes score high points, higher points than you or I if we were bowling."

By Darren Harrison
Naval District Washington Public Affairs
Copyright 2010

Reprinted from Navy News Service

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