WASHINGTON — The partnership between VA and U.S. Paralympics, a division of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) has gotten veterans nationwide involved in adaptive sports as a further step in rehabilitation and to better re-enter society after a grievous physical injury.
For the program to continue to continue to succeed, however, more communities need to take advantage of the resources the partnership offers, and more staff is needed to help coordinate recreational activities at the regional level.
Spreading Adaptive Sports
Former Marine Coprs Sgt. Tim Conner one of 59 Paralympic military athletes, practces sprints in a racing wheelchair on McCool Memorial Track during the 2011 U.S. Olympic Committee Paralympic Military Sports Camp at Naval Station Newport. – (U.S. Navy photo by Lisa Rama)
“There was a good reason to direct VA to partner with U.S. Paralympics, and that was to use the cache of the Olympic brand and its ability to attract local and national organizations. Just as important, we saw how the Olympic brand would attract disabled veterans to adaptive sports,” said Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-IN., chairman of the House VA Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity at a recent hearing evaluating the partnership. “That strategy has worked very well. It appears that thousands more disabled veterans are now involved in adaptive sports and at the elite levels, our national Paralympic and adaptive sports teams now include many more disabled veterans.”
Yet, he noted there are many areas of the country, including VA hospitals, which do not provide veterans with access to adaptive sports or even recreational therapy, in general.
“When committee staff visited a Midwestern VA medical center and asked the director about the hospital’s recreational therapy program, the reply was, ‘We don’t have Bingo here.’ I find that myopic view of a well-documented rehabilitation resource incredible, and I intend to speak with Chairwoman [Ann Marie] Buerkle about taking a look at VA’s national recreational therapy program — or lack of a program,” Stutzman said. “If nothing else, it should be a major source of participants for the VA-Paralympic program.”
Christopher Nowak, VA’s Director of the Office of National Veterans Sports Programs and Special Events, testified that word about the two-year-old partnership is still spreading among VA facilities and that they are actively trying to link veterans with adaptive sports programs.
“We are partnering with USOC to educate VA clinicians on [the benefits of adaptive sports]. I think they’re the gatekeepers for a portion of this. My office is also working to develop tools to allow veterans to find these services in their community and letting veterans know that these opportunities are there.”VA, Paralympic Partnership Successful but Not Yet Available Everywhere Cont.
According to USOC’s chief of U.S. Paralympics, Charles Huebner, VA and USOC are implementing a training and technical-assistance model to reach areas that need, but do not currently have, an adaptive-sports program.
“If there’s a veteran returning to Grinnell, Iowa, and the entity in Grinnell is a YMCA, we can come in cost-efficiently and provide training to the staff at that YMCA about how to provide sport programming for a person with a physical disability,” Huebner said. “That’s what makes this program so incredibly efficient and effective.”
Coordinating Time and Space
The two large organizations also can leverage their high name recognition when setting up programs in towns and cities. According to Huebner, a recent summit in Iowa saw 75 different organizations come together, largely because it was a VA/USOC-led initiative. “It created excitement. It created that focus,” he said.
In order to trade on that leverage, USOC needs regional directors in areas helping to coordinate with other agencies for time and space. “For example, there are 25 different parks and recreation agencies in Chicago, all fighting for the same piece of pie,” Huebner said. “Some of those organizations are a three-person shop with a $300,000 [budget]. Some are $8 million with a staff of 120. To get those entities to work together is difficult. Their focus is usually on what their mission is, and that mission is to not go out and work with 24 other agencies in a region.”
“The message that we have developed and shared is that, if we can work together, we can grow that pie,” Huebner said. “We can collaborate to make efficiencies.”
Currently USOC has only one full-time staff person working in Chicago to help coordinate those 25 different agencies to provide programs for veterans. “We see a great need for additional coordinators,’ he said.
Despite being short of personnel and resources, the partnership has distributed more than 70 grants totaling $5.9 million in the last year, with the grant organizations contributing more than $40 million in private resources and programmatic support. More than 200 Paralympic Sports Clubs or community sports organizations are providing programs for veterans and servicemembers, and more than 14,000 veterans with disabilities have participated in programs through the partnership since its inception.
This winter will see the first VA/USOC Paralympic Adaptive Sport Training Conference held at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs with more than 50 VA therapeutic recreation coordinators attending.
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