Twenty paralyzed veterans and their families gathered in the Missouri Ozarks in mid-September 2013 for a new outdoor adventure program run through the Jefferson Barracks VA Medical Center in St. Louis.
Photo courtesy of Trout Lodge and Camp Lakewood
The new Veteran Outdoor Adventures program brought together 20 veterans from five different states at the YMCA’s Trout Lodge and Camp Lakewood, located on a 360-acre lake in Missouri’s Eastern Ozarks, for a week of outdoor sports including archery, trapshooting, kayaking and fishing.
Charley Wright, a recreational therapist at the Jefferson Barracks VA, said he program came together after one of his patients urged him to visit the Trout Lodge location to plan a potential event for paralyzed veterans. “We really didn’t know until we saw it,” Wright said. “But when we came over the hill and started to see the lake and the rolling hills, he had me sold.”
In just nine months, the VA and YMCA staff put together an outdoor adventure program that included veterans, their families and a number of volunteers for a week of recreation and relaxation. Aside from the four main events, veterans and their families also had the opportunity to learn about adaptive sports such as tennis and golf, go on boat rides and sit around a bonfire and make smores.
Thanks to donations and volunteers, the entire event was provided free of charge to the veterans involved. Permobil donated $3,000 in backpacks for all of the veterans, while the Gateway and Kentucky chapters of Paralyzed Veterans of America helped pay for some of the veterans to attend and also offered additional funds through grants. Jack and Amanda Rollins also volunteered adaptive equipment and handed out turkey calls to the veterans, while Noel Dillard of HandiCAPABLE brought an adapted fishing boat that could hold four wheelchair fisherman, Wright said.
This year’s event also included national representatives from Paralyzed Veterans of America, including National Vice President Charles Brown and former President Gene Crayton, Wright said. “What we would like to see is Paralyzed Veterans get involved on a larger scale and hold perhaps national events and maybe more as we grow so veterans from around the U.S. can come in and have a weeks worth of camp and other activities,” he said.
The Veterans Outdoor Adventures program will take place at the Trout Lodge location again next year with the hope of drawing up to 200 veterans and 100 volunteers to meet the YMCA’s requirement to reserve the entire location. “If we have that many people, we’ll really be able to do the things we want to do,” Wright said, noting that the hope is to include a water ski clinic as well as a golf tournament at the lodge’s 9-hole golf course.
The response from this year’s veteran participants has been tremendous, with the common theme being that the event was more about recreation than competition, Wright said. “Many veterans said they’ve had some of the best times in their lives since their injury,” he said. “A lot of them liked it because of the experience and the ability to have their family there and it wasn’t about competition.”
And while the focus of this year’s event was on veterans with spinal cord injury (SCI), Wright emphasized that they hope to open it up to all disabled veterans. “We’re really excited about the possibility of this becoming an event that vets from all around the U.S. can come to,” he said. “If we can provide services to our SCI veterans, we should be able to provide services to other vets who want to participate in this, including amputees and those with post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Read about Paralyzed Veterans of America's adaptive sports programs
Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and NextGov.com.