Breaking Barriers Through Recreation
ACCESS of Wilmington is helping those with disabilities stay activeBy Pamela A. Keene
Ten years ago, U.S. Navy veteran Andrea Daniels had to learn to walk again. Complications from routine surgery resulted in Andrea having her left leg amputated above the knee. It took several years to adjust to her new life with a prosthetic leg.
Andrea moved from Chestertown, Maryland, to Wilmington in 2016 to escape the cold weather. She started looking for connections in her new hometown.
“It got to the point that I wondered about my life’s purpose,” Andrea says. “I began to seek out veterans’ groups to connect with and found Project SOAR for veterans with disabilities. This type of sports and recreation program wasn’t even on my radar.”
She got fitted for a swim-leg prosthesis to take part in kayaking and other sports through Project SOAR (Sports, Outreach, Adapted Recreation), an adaptive sports program for veterans with disabilities. Affiliated with ACCESS of Wilmington, SOAR serves veterans of all ages who have physical, intellectual and other limitations. ACCESS partners with the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s (UNCW) Recreation Therapy program to obtain funding through the Department of Veteran’s Affairs Adapted Sports Grant.
Through ACCESS, Andrea met people with disabilities who participated in other adaptive sports, including surfing, archery and cycling. She found her niche playing wheelchair tennis every Friday morning through the Wilmington chapter of Wheel Serve NC, a collaboration between the Greater Wilmington Tennis Association (GWTA), ACCESS and UNCW Recreation Therapy.
In addition to Project SOAR, ACCESS’s initiatives include Miracle League Baseball, ACCESS Fit, ACCESSIBLE Adventures, Play and recreation therapy. Programs at ACCESS are open to the public. The private non-profit began as a Miracle League Baseball facility for Wilmington. A nationwide endeavor, Miracle League programs, including those across North Carolina, provide opportunities for children and adults with disabilities to play Miracle League baseball, regardless of their abilities.
Through community fundraising over five years, Wilmington’s Miracle Field and Kiwanis Playground at Olsen Park opened in 2013. The 33,000-square-foot adaptive playing field and playground serve as the centerpiece for ACCESS and its programs.
ACCESS expanded in 2015 by adding ACCESS Fit to offer health and wellness activities and group fitness. The Play initiative opened the door to adventure sports, including archery, cycling, kayaking and surfing for people with disabilities. The organization’s newest Accessible Adventures uses all-terrain mobility equipment, called Terrain Hoppers. They allow access on sand, mud and rough terrain.
“From its beginnings as a Miracle League baseball program in 2008, ACCESS has grown to serve more than 650 children, adults and veterans who otherwise wouldn’t be able to enjoy recreational and adventure activities,” says John Smist, executive director of ACCESS of Wilmington. “Our mission to eliminate barriers to recreation, sports and fitness for people with disabilities has come to life in so many ways.”
Focusing on inclusion, programs are open to the public through group activities, team sports and one-on-one. Costs vary depending on the service.
Partnerships with organizations like the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s recreational therapy department, help expand services. UNCW furnishes adaptive equipment, student assistants and facilities volunteers to ACCESS and in return, students gain practical experience as part of their education.
“On so many levels, the community has really gotten behind ACCESS and the services we offer,” John says. “Businesses and individuals are seeing the benefits of investing in initiatives for all our residents.”
As coordinator of the Greater Wilmington Tennis Association, Candy Pegram saw the need for wheelchair tennis in the community. She was familiar with Wheel Serve NC, a Charlotte-based wheelchair tennis program that operates multiple locations in the state. She coaches wheelchair tennis for the GWTA and Wheel Serve NC, partnering with ACCESS for referrals.
“We have one tournament-level wheelchair player,” Candy says. “All of our players here in Wilmington were at one time able-bodied. Some are playing tennis for the first time. The truth is that Wheel Serve NC is providing a chance for meaningful ways for people with disabilities to recreate, keep active and fit.”
Andrea Daniels can testify to the benefits of ACCESS and what it does for people with disabilities and the community.
“When I first moved to Wilmington, I had no idea I would be able to participate in sports and other activities,” she says. “All of a sudden, I found other alternatively abled people who had the same goals I did. It has made all the difference — it opened my world.
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