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.

Kids Day Inspires Next Generation

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2-year old Clara enjoying Kids Day in Dallas

Nearly two dozen children with disabilities gathered Tuesday to be mentored by veterans who are experienced wheelchair athletes and whose lives are a testament to what can be achieved in spite of a disability.

Kids Day—held as part of the 35th National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) in Dallas—is now in its 15th year. After being led in cadences and warm-up exercises, the kids were cheered on through three events: slalom—a challenging obstacle course for wheelchair athletes—T-ball and basketball.

Dr. Ken Lee, medical director for the NVWG, returned to his iconic role as emcee for the event. Kids Day is one of the most exciting times for the athletes,” he said. “It’s not just about competition at that point; it’s about bringing the future into the competition.”

This year’s Kids Day also welcomed its youngest participant in the history of the event—and the first ever to compete in a standing wheelchair: a 2-year-old named Carla, who confidently wheeled herself around the slalom course and T-ball field.

“This gives her an opportunity to see other kids who are in a similar situation to what she’s in,” said Carla’s dad, Joey. “Most of the kids she’s around are not in wheelchairs, so it’s great for her to be exposed to this.”

Enrique Lopez, whose father, Enrique Sr., is a paralyzed veteran competing this year, smiled as the audience cheered him through various events. ““The more we can improve his life, the more functional he becomes.”

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.

“I always try to tell our mentors that they’re continuing their service by providing inspiration and giving back to the community,” said Sheila Skipper, associate director of public relations and outreach for Paralyzed Veterans of America, who works with VA to coordinate Kids Day annually. “I always try to involve older mentors who have participated in the program and also introduce it to some younger ones so they can go back and share this with their communities back home.”

Twila Adams, a paralyzed Army veteran who served in Desert Shield and Desert Storm operations in Kuwait and Iraq, never stopped serving after she left her 11-year Army career in 1991. She began providing mobile manicures, pedicures and Reiki to the sick, seniors and individuals with disabilities confined to their homes. A car accident in 1994 caused quadriplegia, but her desire to help others did not wane, and said she feels now that wants to inspire children who live with many of the same challenges she has faced for more than 20 years.

“It was an honor to serve as a Kids Day mentor,” she said. “This was a first for me, and I’m excited about serving again. I am still on cloud nine from meeting all of the awesome children and their families.”

For Lee, Kids Day is also about educating and inspiring the audience and local community that a disability does not mean a child, veteran or any adult lacks the ability to live a quality life.

“When we look at these kids, we may feel sorry for them for being in that situation at first, but when we see them going through the challenges and obstacles of sports, that all vanishes,” he said. “It enables a lot of people to look past the disability and see all of the things these kids are able to do.”

 

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

 

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.