Military members get active with special needs children

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Elizabeth Baker
  • 86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

The sound of cheering and laughter fill the Vogelweh Fitness Center basketball court every second Wednesday of school months as elementary school children shoot basketballs, jump-rope, build block towers, and other activities during Vogelweh Gym Sessions. Each child pairs with an active duty “buddy” or a teacher to play with and cheer for them as they move from activity to activity.

These buddies are active duty volunteers from the Kaiserslautern Military Community, who take time to play with special needs children of DoD personnel. Gym sessions are held from 12:45 to 2:00 p.m.

Staff Sgt. Arielle Howze, 786th Civil Engineer Squadron unit deployment manager, has been volunteering with and spreading the word for the “Vogelweh Gym Sessions” for two years. Howze said the program started because the kids love hanging out and building relationships with service members. The program gets the children involved with the active duty community while giving them some physical fitness.  

“A lot of the kids have autism or disabilities that you wouldn’t notice at first, but they’re really athletic,” Howze said. “They love to play games like catch and run and jump rope. One of the kids is really great at basketball. They all have things that they’re super good at.”

Howze said she keeps volunteering because she loves being with the kids.

“Their reaction is the same every month,” Howze said. “They’re really excited and they always call the volunteer their buddy. They’ll say ‘There’s my buddy from last month.’”

Her favorite memories are when the children start to recognize her. If someone volunteers for two or three times, the children will begin to become more familiar with them and invite them to play.

“One thing that really touched my heart was when I was trying to play with a particular kid,” Howze said. “She’s not really as engaged as the others, so I was trying to give her more attention. I tried to jump rope with her and blow bubbles, and she kind of ignored me and turned away from me, so I went to play with someone else to give her a chance to get comfortable. Five minutes later she tapped on my shoulder and asked me to play catch. I felt like, ‘Oh my gosh, she wants to be my friend now.’ It’s really amazing when they start getting comfortable with you.”

Howze said that the program usually accepts 20 volunteers so spots fill up fast, but there will always be more dates throughout the school year. Sessions usually include about 15 children, and civilian attire is allowed.

To volunteer at a Vogelweh Gym Session, contact Howze at