Kadena's 14 years of Special Olympics

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Lauren Snyder
  • 18th Wing Public Affairs
Kadena has been hosting Special Olympics for more than a decade, bringing athletes, families and the community together annually.

Nov. 2 will be the 14th Kadena Special Olympics where approximately 846 athletes, 500 artists, and 1,700 volunteers are anticipated to participate in a day dedicated to competition and special recognition.

KSO was established by the 18th Wing commander in 1999 as an avenue to build relations with the local communities and government representatives while providing a meaningful activity for the special needs children and adults.

Takako Fukuhara, 18th Wing Community Relations chief, was in the initial planning meetings of the Special Olympics. She recounted that no one had been thinking of anything like the Special Olympics except Brig. Gen. James Smith, and that no Japanese person knew what it was. She knew he wanted to enhance community relations events and he wondered what Americans could do for the local people that Okinawans could embrace because he knew they already had a lot of events, festivals, and traditions throughout a typical year.

"Gen. Smith wanted to do something positive for the community, so he volunteered to host the Special Olympics on Kadena," said Fukuhara.

The first year had less than 100 athletes, but starting small still gave the military community an opportunity to be involved. The local neighborhoods immediately began to take note of the American community project with KSO.

Fukuhara related that the Okinawa prefecture governor attended the first year's KSO event, and he said he'd seen and appreciated the American people's volunteering spirit. She continued with her own observations, saying Americans just want to help.

As a main organizer for KSO, she is aware of the thousands of people that contribute throughout the year in fundraising, runs and other events to make KSO a success, and especially conscious of all the hours that go into the planning.

"It's part of the volunteers' efforts; it's amazing," she said. "It impressed the local officials like the governor. I think everyone recognizes that KSO is a good event."

From a handful of schools in 2000, to involving athletes from 29 schools and 28 special-needs workshops throughout the island today, KSO is far-reaching across Okinawa. There has been a gradual process of building the event's reach, and finding what works and perfecting it.

"Slowly, the event itself has been improved," she said. "One by one, some crucial part is corrected and improved, and then the next one is corrected. It took about six or seven years to establish the current system with everything going well."

One major feat that is accomplished every year is finding volunteers outside of the American community to help during KSO events. Sometimes, the KSO committee strikes gold with people that step up time and time again.

"Special needs and Special Olympics have to have interpreter volunteers," Fukuhara explained. "There is one lady in the 18th Force Support Squadron who has been the interpreter point of contact for 14 years. Every year, she visits 10 universities and organizes the college students, giving assignments on who does what for (approximately) 450 interpreters."

KSO features wholesome sporting and entertainment, and the communities involved stand together to support and enable it. Some of the approximately 1,300 athletes and artists who are anticipated to participate in the 2013 event have grown up going to KSO. It has become a tradition in cementing ties between American military and local communities.

"14 years of KSO means 14 years of each athlete's life," she said. "There was a master sergeant in the fire station that has been taking care of the same athlete four or five years. The family made a picture album from the first event that they got together, and it's so obvious this athlete has grown up, from 3rd grade to junior high. And that was a good story."

American military community volunteers may be overwhelmed with the magnitude of KSO, but the planning and years of experience that have gone before should make a day of volunteering rather seamless. Many athletes and families have done the event in years past and are ready to follow the same course of action as they've come to expect.

KSO fosters a positive and encouraging day and is anticipated to bring volunteers, athletes and families together on Kadena for years to come.