Sports day brings smiles to Mildenhall community
RAF MILDENHALL, England — Jackie Leach looks forward each year to Joan Mann Sports Day. Her bedroom is decorated with photographs of her previous five visits to the annual event, held at the home of the 100th Air Refueling Wing.
Leach, 30, has cerebral palsy, a result of a lack of oxygen at birth. She has trouble doing many things, but her ability to smile and spread joy has not been affected.
“She looks forward to this better than any event, I can tell you,” said Diane Leach, who accompanied her daughter to the base Saturday. “She likes anything with a little go in it.”
Jackie Leach was one of about 170 athletes — young children up to senior citizens, who live each day of their lives with the burden of a physical or mental handicap — to attend this year’s version of the event on Saturday.
The visitors tossed balls, ran races and climbed obstacles. And they passed out hugs and high-fives like they were being judged on quality and quantity.
“You see all these people smile, you can’t not have fun,” said Airman 1st Class Jay Gentry of the 100th Security Forces Squadron at RAF Mildenhall, one of more than 700 volunteers. “My mom used to work with the parents of disabled people. That’s what she did before she passed away. This is my way of carrying on the tradition.”
The event began in 1981 when Joan Mann, a British employee at the base, organized the event to further good relations between the base and surrounding community. It is organized by the Top 3 Fellowship at RAF Mildenhall and RAF Lakenheath.
Tech Sgt. Theresa Menard of the 48th Operations Support Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, is a co-chairperson of the event.
“This is their time,” she said, referring to the athletes. “They look forward to it every year.”
Many, she said, arrive looking for one special person, the escort they had last year.
“We’re having a blast today,” said Airman 1st Class Dennis Hock of the 100th Security Forces Squadron at the base, referring to himself and Neil Draper, the athlete he escorted. “We’re going to take the gold, ain’t we? Yeah, buddy!”
The two shared a high-five before going off in search of another event.
Airman 1st Class Wayne Freeland of 100th Communications Squadron, who was volunteering for the second year, said the day gives military members a chance to get a different perspective on life.
Because of their conditions, he said, many of the visitors will never lose their child-like innocence.
“It’s good to see things through their eyes — see the world with wonder again,” he said.
For Diane Leach, the day was important enough for her daughter that she drove her here after finding out that Jackie’s school could not attend this year.
She thought she might have to help her daughter, but Staff Sgt. Matt Sealy and Petty Officer 2 Martin Brown proved more than capable escorts.
“The lads are wonderful, absolutely wonderful,” she said.
Referring to all the volunteers who give up a day off to give of their time, Diane Leach said, “I don’t think they realize what it means to these English kids.”