Team Vance continues 30-year tradition of hosting Special Olympics at Oklahoma base
By JAMES NEAL | Enid (Okla.) News & Eagle | Published: April 14, 2019
VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. (Tribune News Service) — Each spring, more than 200 athletes and volunteers with Special Olympics Oklahoma converge on Vance Air Force Base for one of Enid’s largest joint military-community public service efforts of the year.
Vance has been hosting the spring Special Olympics track and field event for the Cherokee Strip area, which includes Garfield, Grant and Kay counties, for 30 years.
Benefits of the event
John Seals, sports director for Special Olympics Oklahoma, has been involved directly for 23 of those years. In all that time, Seals said Vance has maintained seamless leadership of the annual event despite frequent turnover among base personnel.
“One of the things our athletes need is consistency,” Seals said. “For a lot of the people, we see with disabilities, one of the keys to them being able to compete is for them to be able to go back to the same place and familiar surroundings every year — that’s incredibly important, and Vance has done a great job at it.”
Seals said the event provides a crucial outlet each year for athletes with special needs. But, he said, the athletes aren’t the only ones to benefit at the event.
“I think it’s a two-way street,” Seals said. “The athletes benefit greatly from spending a day on the base and spending a day with the airmen. But, the other side of that is our servicemembers are getting a day to spend with our athletes, and that’s beneficial for them, too.”
Drawn to volunteer
1st Lt. Tim Necarsulmer, an instructor pilot with the 3rd Flying Training Squadron, said the consistency of the annual Special Olympics event was part of what drew him to volunteer.
He started last year at the track as an assistant, under Capt. Jasmine Nicklaus and Capt. Heather Burns, both also from the 3rd FTS.
“It was a good opportunity at this base,” Necarsulmer said. “Because they’ve been doing it for so long, I knew it’d be a consistent opportunity for me to serve the whole time I’m here.”
He said he also was drawn to volunteer with Special Olympics because of previous experience volunteering at Dragonfly Forest, a YMCA camp in Pennsylvania for kids with special needs.
“It’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing, and feel passionate about,” Necarsulmer said. “When I saw they had Special Olympics here, I just jumped in because I’d done that before.”
Necarsulmer said volunteering with the Special Olympics athletes and their families is rewarding because it gives a unique experience to both athletes and volunteers.
“Special Olympics helps bring an experience to kids and adults they might not get outside of the event and similar events,” Necarsulmer said. “It’s cool to provide that experience and the thrill that they get from being put in situations they might not normally be put in.”
A way to give back
Necarsulmer moved up this year to be the track coordinator, overseeing athletes and volunteers at the March 7 event. This year’s track and field meet drew in 147 athletes on 22 teams for 269 total events.
Coordinating all of that took a significant effort from base and community members, including 280 volunteers — 200 from Vance and 80 from Enid High School and Oklahoma Bible Academy. Food and services were donated from 35 Enid businesses.
Necarsulmer said Team Vance members are willing to step up for that kind of effort in part because of the type of people attracted to serve in the military.
“A lot of it is due to the kind of people who are here,” Necarsulmer said. “People on base are pretty driven, in general, who are always looking for something more to do. A lot of it is just the culture of the people who live here, who are always looking for a way to give back together.”
A lasting impact
Team Vance members volunteer for a wide variety of projects, but Necarsulmer said Special Olympics is unique because it gives community members an opportunity to serve on the base.
“It’s a good opportunity to combine everyone into a bigger community, instead of separated communities,” he said.
That service is for the benefit of the Special Olympians. But the volunteers might get more out of it than the athletes, Necarsulmer said.
“I definitely get a lot out of it,” Necarsulmer said. “We’re doing it for the kids and the athletes who are coming out, but I definitely get a lot out of the event and seeing everyone who comes out and how happy they are that they get to do this.”
Col. Jay Johnson, vice commander of the 71st Flying Training Wing, said Special Olympics is an invaluable opportunity to grow Team Vance’s bonds with the community and to teach selfless service to young airmen.
“Across my over 20 years of service in the Air Force, I’ve seen no stronger relationship between an Air Force base and the local community than the one Vance Air Force Base shares with Enid,” Johnson said. “A perfect example is the Cherokee Strip Area 6 Special Olympics we had the honor of hosting on March 7.
“The Special Olympics are an opportunity for the families of Vance Air Force Base to provide a first-class venue for these amazing athletes, but more importantly, to interact with them, encourage them and learn from them,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the annual event has lasting impacts on all involved.
“The impact the families and the athletes have on our airmen is profound,” Johnson said. “The event gives visibility to people with intellectual disabilities, which is the first step toward a positive cycle of inclusion, understanding and respect. I believe this event has a significant positive and lasting impact on the athletes, their families and the men and women of Vance Air Force Base.”
Necarsulmer said he’s already planning for next year’s Special Olympics. He will be moving up to coordinate the 2020 meet, along with 1st Lt. Trevor Birr of the 33rd FTS, to maintain the seamless leadership of the event’s impact on both airmen and Special Olympians.