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.

National Veterans Wheelchair Games Help Army Veteran Michael Hale Reclaim Active Life

Army Veteran Mike Hale

Army Veteran Mike Hale

Army Veteran Michael Hale never imagined that a wheelchair sports event could dramatically change his life.

But in 2015, Hale traveled to Dallas to attend his first-ever National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG), at first hesitant to believe that wheelchair sports could play an important part in his rehabilitation. In 2014, Hale – who enlisted in the Army in 1975 and served eight years – suffered an aneurysm in his lower aorta. He remained on life support for days, and due to the lack of blood supply to his right leg, doctors had no choice but to amputate it.

“I never expected to experience what I did at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games my first year, but it was amazing,” says Hale, who lives in Yelm, Wash., with his wife of 12 years, Garnelle. “This year, our dining room table is full of our luggage. For me, I only had to go once to know I’ll never stop going.”

For Hale, acquiring a disability later in life hasn’t come easy. Each morning, the challenges begin with intense pain and the realization that another day must pass, lived much differently than the life he’d known prior to his 2014 surgery.

“I wake up most mornings, look over at my prosthetic leg and say to myself, ‘No, not again,’” Hale says. “I still go through depression; it just happens.”

But what Hale initially saw as physical therapy early on in his disability became the mental therapy that continues to lift him through the challenges of each day. A swimmer in high school, Hale began swimming in 2014 as part of his rehabilitation, and suddenly, a new world unbeknownst to him throughout his military career and 36 years running an RV business began to open up.

“Becoming involved in sports was a game-changer,” Hale says. “It’s been more than two years, and now I travel almost 200 miles per week for practice.”

Hale rose to the winner’s podium his novice year in Dallas in 2015, earning silver medals in the 100M track and bowling events. At the 2016 Games in Salt Lake City, he’ll compete in softball, 9-ball, bowling, 100M track and table tennis.

“It’s all about the gold this year,” he says.

Still, while medals and competition are important, Hale has not forgotten the camaraderie and encouragement that can be provided at no better venue than the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. He credits his first NVWG for equipping him with the confidence to coach his fellow amputees and others with disabilities in sports, particularly bowling.

“No one asks for a disability, but once you’re dealt it, you must learn to deal with it,” he says. “A lot of it is in your mind, what you can and can’t do, but there’s something out there for everyone.”

For Hale, the Games are about learning from and sharing with his fellow Veterans, not only about skills and techniques in adaptive sports but about coping with the daily challenges of living with a disability. While fired up about the competition, he’ll move past his own personal events to cheer on his friends and Northwest team members.

“I just got my new prosthetic leg, a new sports chair and a haircut, and I feel like a new man,” Hale says with a laugh. “The VA has invested so much more in me as an athlete this year. The Games have changed my life, and I’m even more excited this year than I was last.”

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.

“Big City, Big Wheels, Big Hearts” – Dallas Prepares for the 35th National Veterans Wheelchair Games

dallas_skylineThe saying, “Everything is bigger in Texas,” may well ring true June 21-26, 2015, when the 35th annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) come to Dallas, this time with the highest number of veteran participants in the history of the Games.

The size of this year’s Games – which are slated to draw more than 650 veteran athletes and more than 100 coaches – aligns with this year’s “big” theme – “Big City, Big Wheels, Big Hearts.”

“Big things happen in Dallas,” said Glendon Bentley, executive director of the Lone Star Chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America. “If all of the veteran athletes who signed this year show up, this will be the largest National Veterans Wheelchair Games in the history of the Games.”

This year’s theme – which plays off of the city’s “Big Things Happen Here” campaign – was selected from submissions from Paralyzed Veterans of America members and Department of Veterans Affairs staff. Accompanying the “Big City, Big Wheels, Big Hearts” motto will be a western theme weaved into events throughout the week, Bentley said.

The Games kick off at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center on Sunday, June 21, with afternoon events featuring a variety of sports clinics for athletes to try power soccer, wheelchair basketball, quad rugby and table tennis. Evening opening ceremonies will feature the presentation of colors by the Lone Star Chapter’s wheelchair Honor Guard – the only wheelchair Honor Guard team in the United States – followed by an address by paralyzed Texas Governor Greg Abbott.

“The VA North Texas Health Care system has been fantastic in putting a great program together for us,” said David Tostenrude, Games director for the VA. “We’ve also had an incredible amount of support from our partners in the city and business community.”

Monday’s track and field events will open at Southern Methodist University with a parachute demonstration by Army veteran and double amputee Dana Bowman, who was injured in a training accident with the Army’s elite parachute team, the Golden Knights, in 1994.

“Dallas is a typical big city, but it has excellent venues as far as a convention center and SMU – better venues than some we’ve had in the past,” said Tom Brown, Games director for Paralyzed Veterans of America. “What will make Dallas unique this year are the exhibition sports – rowing, table tennis, fencing and biathlon.”

The VA launched the Games in Richmond, Va., in 1981 to support its efforts to promote the rehabilitative value of wheelchair sports. Paralyzed Veterans of America signed on as a co-sponsor of the Games in 1985, and the Games have since grown, both in number of competitors as well as the variety of sports offered.

“What an incredible accomplishment for both organizations to have made this long commitment to support veterans’ health through sports and recreation,” Tostenrude said.

Still, while the variation of sports and equipment and number of veterans participating has changed, the one constant has been the influence seasoned veteran participants have over the novice athletes, Tostenrude added. This year, more than 140 veteran athletes are slated to participate for the first time, he said.

“Things have changed over the years, but the one constant is the novice influence and the peer support that returning veterans bring,” Tostenrude said. “That’s what these programs are all about.”

Also growing year-to-year is the involvement of national associations that enable veterans to get more involved in sports and recreation at home, Tostenrude said. “This involvement continues to grow so that the Games are not just a one-time-a-year opportunity but really a bridge to get veterans more active at home,” he said.

Above all, Brown emphasized the importance of the sponsors and volunteers who give so graciously to the Games each year. “Without the sponsors and volunteers, the Games would not happen,” he said. “That’s the glue that holds the Games together year after year. The local organizing committee and the Lone Star chapter have gone out of their way to cover every item this year.”


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.