At first glance, one might have thought the large space at the Tampa Convention Center was set up for a pirate-themed birthday party. Colorful balloons, pirate hats, pirate rubber ducks, beads and medals were all around. And then there was the guy dressed as a pirate. That turned out to be Dr. Ken Lee, head of spinal cord medicine at VA Medical Center in Milwaukee, who emceed Kids Day at the 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG).
Mike Bruno, from the Tampa community of Northdale, attended the day with his son, Beecher, who had just returned from participating in the National Junior Disabilities Championships in Rochester, Minn. The elder Bruno said this was their first time attending the NVWG and added that they were really enjoying the experience. “It gives kids encouragement and shows them that there is a lot of opportunity for people all throughout life,” he said.
He added that for the kids this event demonstrates that like everything else you want to do in life, you have to start somewhere. “This event shows that if you’re interested in something, then just go out and have fun. Don’t be afraid to talk to someone and ask questions. Just get out there and enjoy yourself. Never give up.”
Beecher also observed that the experience is similar to the Paralympics. “No matter what ages or classifications we are all in, we’re all there to have fun,” he said.
Valerie Heard, whose daughter Lauren Neal was a participant, attended from nearby Riverview and said the event was wonderful. Like Beecher, Neal, who won the hearts of many on the day with her infectious smile, is involved with Paralympics Sports Tampa Bay.
“It’s great when she can mingle with other kids,” Heard said, “but this is a new experience for her to mingle with veterans. And most of all, it’s just a good opportunity to get out and have fun.
“It was good meeting new people,” said the young Neal and added that basketball was her favorite of the three activities offered on the day, which also included slalom and T-ball.
A total of 29 kids participated in the event, about a dozen of which were from the Shriners Hospital for Children – Tampa. Alicia Argiz-Lyons, director of donor development and marketing for the hospital, said she was thrilled that the Games were in Tampa this year and that her organization could bring a contingent of kids to the event. “They are having a blast out there,” she said of the Shriners kids. She added that it’s a good chance for the Shriners kids to experience the fun and competitive atmosphere prior to their own No Limits Sports event to be held October 12.
The veterans got something out of the day too as it wasn’t just the kids who had big smiles on their faces. One of the athletes mentoring was Derrick Trentin from Fall River, Wisconsin. The Army veteran has been using a wheelchair for 25 years, so he believes he has something he can teach kids about perseverance over their disabilities.
“It’s fun to be around all this energy,” Trentin said. “The kids are just interested in having a good time. And it’s a chance for them to see adults who have overcome adversity and have fun too.”
Learn more about the 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Tampa
Tim W. Jackson is a freelance writer and editor in Asheville, N.C.