Kids Take Center Stage at the 34th National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Philadelphia

Two veteran mentors and a child with disabilities at the 2014 NVWG Kids DayAs part of each National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG), one morning is set aside as Kids Day, when local kids with disabilities can show up to be mentored in sports by NVWG athletes and have some fun with other children in a similar situation to their own. This year 14 kids participated in the event.

At the 2014 Games in Philadelphia, Dr. Ken Lee, who acts as the medical director for the NVWG, once again rocked the mic as emcee of the Friday event. Having dressed in the past as Mr. Incredible, Batman, Fred Flintstone, and a pirate, this year Lee was a “safari man,” complete with stuffed animals attached to him.

“I become a kid again,” Lee said of his participation in the event. “Well, more of a kid, maybe.” And Lee said that’s the point: To scream and yell and laugh a lot. He added that he loves to see parents and kids who came into the event quite tentative to leave with huge smiles on their faces.

Renee Chenault-Fattah joined Lee to emcee the 2014 Kids Day. Chenault-Fattah joined Philadelphia’s NBC10 in 1991 and anchors the news there weekdays at 4 and 6 p.m. Chenault-Fattah said she was honored to be part of the event. “I love kids,” said the mother of four, “and I care deeply about our veterans. So I definitely wanted to be part of an event combining the two.”

One of the participants this year was Jaden Brown, 13, who immediately started draining shots when he got on the basketball court. His mom, Jennifer Stitt, said that Jaden normally isn’t in a chair but instead uses a prosthetic leg, so this was a new experience for him. Brown was born with an underdeveloped leg, which had to be amputated when he was 3. He was fitted with a prosthetic and was walking soon thereafter.

Jaden, who is in a basketball league this summer, confirmed that basketball was his favorite sport. He plays shooting guard and occasionally point guard. He enjoyed softball, too, as he explained how far he drove a ball off the tee.

Maddie Jones showed real athletic skills, too. The 14-year-old with cerebral palsy said she plays wheelchair basketball and also skis, rows and has started karate. Her mom, Meg Jones, said Maddie was excited to check out Kids Day and the Games in general. She added that Maddie loved talking to the veterans, too, and hearing their stories.

The younger Jones said she wants to play sports through high school and would love to one day get a college scholarship to play sports. Always looking at new opportunities, she said she enjoyed slalom, a course of challenging obstacles for wheelchairs, because she didn’t know it existed. She also said she loved meeting some Paralympians while at the Games.

Shafiq Simpson, 8, said he enjoyed softball. His favorite part of the day was hitting homeruns. He did have one complaint: in his opinion, the day should have also featured table tennis.

Simpson’s mom, Sharmaine, said that they heard about the Games from Shafiq’s physical therapist. “This gives him a chance to participate with other kids,” Sharmaine said. “It shows him that he’s no different from other kids. It will get him more motivated. When he goes back home he cans say, ‘I played baseball. I played basketball.’”

Kids Day isn’t just for the kids, though. Former Marine and current NVWG athlete Joey Avellone said he looks forward to this morning of the Games each year. He said he was asked to be a mentor for Kids Day at the first Games he attended, which was in 2003. “I’ve been doing it ever since,” he said. “I always look ahead at the schedule to make sure I don’t have a conflict.”

Avellone, who helped lead the kids in the Pledge of Allegiance, said he was surprised at the number and determination of real young kids this year. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “They were getting through that slalom better than I could.”

Former Marine and current NVWG athlete Tai Cleveland also said that he loves Kids Day. This year was his fourth year to participate. Cleveland said he loves the chance to be a mentor and to encourage the kids.

Dr. Ken Lee said the event is a win-win. “It’s a great opportunity for kids to be with others who are like them and learn about adaptive sports and it’s a great opportunity for the veterans to be mentors,” he said. “It takes the veterans away from who they are in everyday life and really shows who they are as a person. It brings out the best in them.”

The National Veterans Wheelchair Games are co-presented by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Paralyzed Veterans of America.

Tim W. Jackson is a writer and editor in Weaverville, N.C.