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Master Sgt. Allison Lister, left, watches as Gavin Hamilton, 16, prepares to shoot a basketball Saturday during Joan Mann Sports Day at RAF Mildenhall, England. Lister was one of 600 volunteers and Hamilton was one of 200 athletes at the special day.

Master Sgt. Allison Lister, left, watches as Gavin Hamilton, 16, prepares to shoot a basketball Saturday during Joan Mann Sports Day at RAF Mildenhall, England. Lister was one of 600 volunteers and Hamilton was one of 200 athletes at the special day. (Ron Jensen / S&S)

Master Sgt. Allison Lister, left, watches as Gavin Hamilton, 16, prepares to shoot a basketball Saturday during Joan Mann Sports Day at RAF Mildenhall, England. Lister was one of 600 volunteers and Hamilton was one of 200 athletes at the special day.

Master Sgt. Allison Lister, left, watches as Gavin Hamilton, 16, prepares to shoot a basketball Saturday during Joan Mann Sports Day at RAF Mildenhall, England. Lister was one of 600 volunteers and Hamilton was one of 200 athletes at the special day. (Ron Jensen / S&S)

Carly Denny prepares to throw a football during Joan Mann Sports Day at RAF Mildenhall, England, on Saturday. She was one of nearly 200 athletes who visited the base for a day of sports and friendship.

Carly Denny prepares to throw a football during Joan Mann Sports Day at RAF Mildenhall, England, on Saturday. She was one of nearly 200 athletes who visited the base for a day of sports and friendship. (Ron Jensen / S&S)

RAF MILDENHALL, England — The joy was written across their faces in broad smiles and twinkling eyes.

And that was just the volunteers. The athletes who took part in Joan Mann Sports Day on Saturday were even more ecstatic.

“I talked to people who’ve done it before and they said of all the things you can volunteer for, this is one of the most rewarding,” said Master Sgt. Allison Lister of the 48th Munitions Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, England. “I’m 20 minutes into it, and I’m finding that out already.”

She was one of 600 people who spent a glorious, sunny day in a large, dark hangar helping 200 athletes with varying degrees and types of handicaps have the time of their lives.

This was the 22nd year for the event, which began when Joan Mann, a British employee at RAF Mildenhall, organized the event to repair strained relations between the American military and the surrounding community.

Now it is as firmly entrenched at the base as the flagpole, organized each year by the Top Three Fellowship at both RAF Mildenhall and RAF Lakenheath. The event relies on the willingness of people to give up valuable free time to help out.

“These kids need as much fun as anyone else,” said Tech Sgt. Cliff Sowder of the 48th Security Forces Squadron, to explain why he volunteered.

Not all the athletes are kids, although that is an easy mistake to make.

They are slow in their development, in many cases, and even adults are childlike.

But that attitude is contagious and the volunteers, many of whom escort the athletes while they shoot basketballs, run dashes or climb obstacles, end up jumping for joy and clapping vigorously at even the most modest of feats.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Kimberly Schoenberg of RAF Mildenhall said the athletes have problems that seem staggering, but they are anything but glum.

“They don’t focus on that,” said Schoenberg. “They focus on life around them. In that, they are an inspiration for [the rest of us].”

Tech. Sgt. Theresa Menard is co-chairwoman of the event from RAF Lakenheath.

She was attending her fourth Joan Mann Sports Day on Saturday.

“It’s their moment to shine,” she said of the visitors. “They love it.”

Some of the schools that have sent athletes in the past have closed, she said, which is sad. But some schools and centers send buses on three-hour journeys so their clients can take part.

“I’ve seen athletes come back every year. They look forward to it,” she said.

That was echoed by Jean Wood, director of a youth center in Coringham, a town more than a two-hour bus ride from the base. Wood has been bringing her clients, who range in age from 8 to 30, to the base for six years.

They look so forward to it, she said, that she tries not to mention it too soon.

“They go on and on about it for the next month,” she said.

Talking about the attention they get from the volunteers, who receive more hugs on this one day than Santa does at Christmas, Wood said, “Let’s be truthful. They don’t get this on the outside.”

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