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Vandenberg Airmen volunteer for Special Olympics

Athletes prepare to run the 100-meter dash at a Special Olympics event, April 18, 2015, Santa Maria, Calif. More than 60 Team V Airmen joined forces with members of Special Olympics Northern Santa Barbara County to assist with the event. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Airman Robert J. Volio/Released)

Athletes prepare to run the 100-meter dash at a Special Olympics event, April 18, 2015, Santa Maria, Calif. More than 60 Team V Airmen volunteered to join forces with members of Special Olympics Northern Santa Barbara County to assist with the event. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Airman 1st Class Robert J. Volio/Released)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- More than 60 Team V Airmen volunteered to join forces with members of Special Olympics Northern Santa Barbara County to assist with an event in Santa Maria, April 18.

Volunteers were paired up with athletes with intellectual disabilities for the day, where they got to know their athlete, watched them compete and provided support for them and other competitors throughout the day.

"Vandenberg is the only volunteer group the Special Olympics staff uses for athlete escorts," said Capt. Suzanne Thiele, 576th Flight Test Squadron test operations officer. "There were 120 athletes from Lompoc, Santa Maria, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Ventura and Kern County. It is an honor that they entrust this responsibility with our Airmen and continue to ask for our support year after year."

The mission of Northern Santa Barbara County is to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in the sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.

"I think it's amazing that an event like this exists for these athletes," said Airman 1st Class Robert Haehnel, 30th Civil Engineer Squadron electrical systems apprentice. "The whole experience was incredibly rewarding for me, but even more so for the competitors."

Throughout the course of the day, enthusiasm and positive reinforcement remained key components for the athletes and their partners.

"The athletes were very supportive and motivating to their fellow competitors," said Thiele. "Whether it was cheering one another on or applauding their fellow teammates during award presentations, their overall camaraderie and positive attitudes were exceptional."

The Special Olympics provided Team V members an opportunity to represent the base and make a difference in the lives of athletes.

"I think it's pivotal for Airmen to get involved in an event like this because it's a great way to give back to the community," said Haehnel. "Additionally, you get to play a huge role in the day of your athlete, which is a really good feeling."

Despite potentially debilitating disabilities, the athletes of the Special Olympics proved inspirational and motivational to all those around them.

"I believe the Special Olympics participants serve as a motivational influence to all of us," said Thiele. "Their ability to overcome the hurdles that life has given them provides a unique perspective on life that can benefit us all to be a part of."