By Stephen Spotswood
GRAND JUNCTION, CO — When Teresa Parks arrived at the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in 1999, she brought with her a lifelong belief that sports and recreational activities could be used to help strengthen and heal veterans suffering physically and psychologically from the effects of combat.
The clinic, co-sponsored by Disabled American Veterans (DAV) and held for a week each April in Snowmass, CO, has been giving veterans with traumatic physical and neurological injuries the opportunity to participate in adaptive winter sports since 1987.
Parks had been working for the VA as a recreational therapist for six years before coming to the clinic. Considering where she grew up, her career choice is anything but surprising.
“As a young person, sports was what got me through school. It was where my passion and motivation was at,” she explained. “I grew up in a small town in Iowa. One of our major businesses there was the VA. I grew up around veterans. We had a lot of them in our community at the time.
“And I’ve always led an active lifestyle,” Parks added. “I truly believe, if we take good care of ourselves and stay active, we’re going to be as productive and as healthy as we can be.”
After 16 years with the Winter Sports Clinic, she’s worked her way up to the post of director. There, she coordinates the dozens of staff and volunteers who provide veterans with six days of adaptive recreational activities and sports, as well as weeklong continuing education classes. The program is open to veterans with traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, orthopedic amputations, visual impairments, certain neurological problems and other disabilities, who receive care at a VA medical facility or military treatment center. Last year, it played host to nearly 350 attendees.
While the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic lasts only one week each year, Parks’ job is year-round. “As we’re wrapping up one year, we are also starting to plan for the following year,” she said. “We start recruiting volunteers in June, and applications for veterans go out in August. We take those until the end of December. All that time, we’re planning. We’re detailing. We’re reviewing our equipment and making repairs.”
Each month, she meets with a steering committee, whose members dissect the previous year’s efforts with the goal of making the next year a smoother, better experience for the veterans who attend.
“We’re always seeing what we can do to make it better,” Parks said. “We have a year to plan and one week to get it right.”
That week sees veterans of all generations coming together to learn new skills, resurrect old ones and discover avenues of physical activity they thought were closed to them.
“It’s empowering to everybody there,” Parks said. “We grow to become a big family. As much as we all do it for the veterans, it’s amazing how re-energized everybody gets at the event and the impact and the stories that come out of it. We’re using adaptive [sports] as a tool to get them engaged again in life. It’s phenomenal.”
With 16 years of experience, Parks is also amazed at the advances that have occurred in the field of adaptive sports. “It’s funny seeing some of our old videos. Initially, adaptive skiing was done in what looks like a sled in the snow. It’s incredible how the industry has grown and changed.”
That growth is due, in part, to the work being done at the clinic. “I’m very fortunate that one of the members of my team is really known across the country for his expertise and skills in adaptive equipment,” Parks explained. “We work with the industry on recommendations and changes. The equipment itself has come a long way, and more companies are out there with an interest in making adaptive equipment.”
While skiing is the most prominent of the adaptive sports being offered, veterans can take advantage of adaptive scuba diving, rock climbing, snowmobiling, sled hockey and self-defense, among other activities.
VA and the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) group have been leading the way in adaptive skiing, and programs across the country have been following in their footsteps, Park said. That’s a trend she’d like to see continue.
“I’d like to see any place that has skiing have adaptive skiing programs,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity for veterans to have family time and to do things as a group.”