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.