Kids Day Opens Adaptive Sports to Children with Disabilities

Kids Day at the 2016 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Salt Lake City.

Kids Day at the 2016 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Salt Lake City.

Sixteen children with disabilities gathered at the Salt Palace Convention Center Thursday to be mentored by Veterans whose lives speak to the life-changing power of adaptive sports.

Kids Day – held as part of the 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) in Salt Lake City – is now in its 16th year. After being led in warm-up exercises, kids with varying types and levels of disability were cheered through the slalom – a challenging obstacle course for wheelchair athletes – t-ball and basketball.

“One of the things that happens at these types of events is people always talk about how Veterans inspire them, well, we get inspiration, too, when we see kids who are dealing with circumstances probably far greater than being disabled by the military because for them, it’s life-long,” said Sherman Gillums, Jr., executive director of Paralyzed Veterans of America. “A lot of these kids are very sharp; they’ve been problem-solving for a long time. And if they take that into adulthood and into their career, they can do anything.”

For many children and parents, Kids Day was their first experience being around a large group of individuals in wheelchairs, let alone trying adaptive sports. The hope is that all young participants will return home equipped with enough knowledge and resources to pursue adaptive activities in their communities.

“It is amazing, truly amazing; this is the funnest thing he has done,” said Roger, father to Jacob. “You should have seen him out there, he had a blast going over all the jumps and doing all the obstacles. He had a blast.”

“It was awesome,” Jacob added.

Army Veteran Shaun Castle, now in his second year as a Kids Day mentor, said the experience naturally moved more personal in Salt Lake City, to the point where he was not only encouraging the children but motivating them to pursue activities beyond the one-hour NVWG event.

“Wheelchair basketball has taken me around the world to things I never dreamed, and it all started with trying wheelchair sports,” Castle said. “This year involved a deeper connection with the kids who may not have found that yet. Rather than just showing them how to shoot a basketball, I was able to speak to them about how it can change their life – that this moment could be one that changes their life forever.”

Kids Day is about more than giving disabled children an opportunity to see what’s possible; it’s also about inspiring Veteran athletes to take what they see and learn at the event and pay it forward in their own communities. Many Veterans tout Kids Day as their favorite event at the Games, evidenced by its popularity and long wait lists to fill around XX mentorship spots each year.

“These athletes, whether they’re novices or experts, have all been in much the same position as these kids, even though their injuries did not come until adulthood,” said Dr. Ken Lee, medical director for the NVWG, who returned to his iconic role as emcee for the Kids Day event. “The Veterans know how these kids feel and how the parents feel, and to relay what they have learned to both the child and the parents, I’m pretty sure that is even better than receiving a gold medal.”

The 36th annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) – co-presented by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Paralyzed Veterans of America – will feature 19 wheelchair sporting events and two exhibition sports for disabled Veterans June 27-July 2, 2016, in Salt Lake City.

Brittany Ballenstedt is a military spouse, freelance journalist and photographer in Washington, D.C.

Sports Bring National Veterans Wheelchair Games Novice Dan Alston “Back to Life”

From left to right are: Dan Alston and his wife Veronica with their son and daughter.

From left to right are: Dan Alston and his wife Veronica with their son and daughter.

Adaptive sports helped Army Veteran Dan Alston regain confidence lost in the wake of a life-changing diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in 2008.

For Alston, it took time. He had served 13 years as a 131A Field Artillery Targeting Technician, which took him all over the world and left him with injuries, including back, neck and knee problems as well as post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. He continued to serve, but in late 2007, while stationed in South Korea, his legs went numb.

“They did an MRI of my back and all it showed was a bulging disc,” Alston says. “I returned to Ft. Bragg and the feeling returned to my legs, but about a month later, I went out for a run and the right side of my face, arm and chest went numb.”

A back, neck and head MRI revealed lesions consistent with multiple sclerosis (MS). Alston permanently retired in 2013 as a Chief Warrant Officer 2, devastated over the loss of his beloved Army career and the impending promotions of those he had served alongside throughout his career.

“Now all of my classmates are looking at promotions for Chief Warrant Officer 4,” he says. “But they – especially Joshua White – make me feel good by saying that ‘we’ made it; they still make me feel like I’m there.”

Many times, however, that feeling of being there has not been enough. Even before his permanent retirement, Alston went through the natural cycle of depression knowing that MS could claim not only his military career but also his active lifestyle and plans for his family. “For about four years, I wasn’t very involved with my family and friends like I should have been; I was isolated,” he says. “I wondered why MS had happened to me.”

By 2012, Alston started to see a sliver of light after attending a transition training course on computers through the Wounded Warrior Project. While it did not bring him fully out of his isolation and depression, it planted a seed, and in 2014 – after moving with his family to Durham, N.C., and beginning recreational therapy at the Durham VAMC – a fellow veteran gave him a handcycle to try.

Alston began to discover that while he couldn’t change his MS, he could adapt to it. The initial gratification found in a handcycle gave him the confidence to try other sports, namely basketball, bowling and table tennis. While fatigue remains his greatest challenge with MS, Alston says sports tire him but also help him – table tennis in particular – manage challenges like hand-eye coordination.

“Doing sports and events is confidence-building and brings me back to life,” he says. “These are things I thought I would never do again. It’s not like I’m not getting it done; I’m just doing it differently now.”

Alston is also an accomplished artist, taking first place at the Durham VAMC arts festival in 2015 for his drawing of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

“I have trouble with my hands and it’s hard for my brain to focus; it takes me a while to finish one drawing,” he says. “I’m trying to learn every bit I can about my MS and how symptoms come after certain activities.”

The accomplishments in sports and art over the past two years have given Alston the confidence to attend his first-ever National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG), taking place June 27-July 2, 2016, in Salt Lake City. Alston will compete in bowling, basketball, nine-ball and table tennis.

“I want to experience the Games for myself and decide if it’s something I want to continue doing,” Alston says. “But I expect it to be an awesome time because other veterans have told me such good things about it and how it helps them cope with whatever they’re going through.”

Rolling into his first Games, Alston will not only seek to learn, but encourage, talking with his fellow veterans about how he maintains an active lifestyle through sports participation, family activities and volunteer work at the Durham VAMC and Disabled American Veterans.

“The most important part is to focus on what you can do versus what you can’t,” he says. “Focusing on what you can’t do will only back you into a hole and keep you there. It’s easy to try to focus on the glory days, but you have to focus on the ones in front of you. And don’t do it alone.”

About his family, Alston adds, “I want to thank my wife, Veronica, son, Daniel, daughter, Olivia and all of my closest friends for sticking by my side and never giving up on me.”

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

Brittany Ballenstedt is a military spouse, freelance journalist and photographer in Washington, D.C.

Trapshooting Among Most Popular Sports at 35th National Veterans Wheelchair Games

National Veterans Wheelchair Games trapshooting

Trapshooting at the 35th National Veterans Wheelchair Games June 25, 2015. Photo: VA Adaptive Sports.

Army veteran Justin Anderson was injured by a gunshot wound while serving in Iraq in 2003. And while the sound of a firearm might draw up negative emotions for others who have been wounded, for Anderson, it is therapy.

“I have no problem being around firearms because that’s what I did for so many years in the military,” Anderson said about trapshooting and other shooting sports. “It’s therapy for me. It may not be healing for all Veterans depending on their situation, but for me, it’s healing.”

Anderson was part of the first group of Veterans who gathered at the Ellis County Sportsman Club June 25, 2015, for trapshooting, one of most sought-after sports at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) each year. Roughly 50 Veterans – including several novices – compete in trapshooting June 25-26th as part of the 35th National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Dallas.

“Up until three years ago, I kept to myself; I stayed at home and didn’t do anything, but now, I’m just going full force and doing whatever I can,” said Anderson, who endured a gunshot wound to his knee and shrapnel wounds to his back while serving in Iraq in 2003. Last year, a prolonged infection in his knee necessitated surgery to amputate his leg.

“Thankfully, my lower back didn’t have any spinal cord damage, but I am starting to lose some mobility in my lower back,” Anderson said.

Andy MacDonald, associate director of shooting sports for Paralyzed Veterans of America, said the trapshooting event – now in its sixth year at the Games – develops a wait list each NVWG as the event is open to only 50 Veterans, all of whom must submit a package at the start of the year to participate.

“On January 1, my package was postmarked, certified and sent,” Anderson said.

MacDonald, who runs Paralyzed Veterans’ national shooting sports circuit, said that while the traditional Paralyzed Veterans of America trapshoot circuit pits able-bodied and disabled shooters on the same playing field, the Games event is different in that it classifies shooters into five categories depending on their level of injury. The Games event also differs from the traditional circuit in that Games participants are positioned at a specific distance (16 yards) and are required to be with a volunteer at all times, MacDonald said.

“Advanced shooters on the circuit will be up to the 27-yard-line, and they have to earn that yardage over time,” he said.

The trapshooting event at the Games is not only a popular event among Veterans; it also attracts coaches who are devoted to mentoring Veterans along in the sport.

“It seems to get better every year as you get to know more Veterans and hear their stories and learn about their goals,” said Paul Knox, an electrical repairman with the Department of Veterans Affairs, who has coached for all six years of the event’s existence at the NVWG. “My role involves making sure the Veterans are lined up at the right spot and that they have everything they need.”

For more experienced shooters on the circuit, the Games mark an important time of year to reach out to novice athletes about the opportunities in trapshooting. “Our team has 20 men and women who have come to Dallas for the Games, and we always love talking to the novices,” said Ken Klein, national director for government relations for the Minnesota chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America. “I wouldn’t miss the Games; I look forward to them every year.”

A special thanks goes to the Ellis County Sportsmans Club for hosting the event, Fiocchi Ammunition for providing the ammunition, TriWest Healthcare Alliance for sponsoring the event and the generous local VFW volunteers, who supplied breakfast and lunch for the event.

The NVWG are co-presented by Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Brittany Ballenstedt is a military spouse, freelance journalist and photographer in Wichita Falls, Texas.