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VA recreation fair connects veterans to adaptive activities

SALT LAKE CITY — While serving in the U.S. Army in 1995, Orlando Perez found out that he had a tumor on his spine. The surgery to remove left him paraplegic.

The outcome of the surgery left him feeling like he had nothing left in his life.

"When I became a paraplegic I didn't think that I could do, basically, anything," Perez said. "It was really hard because I was a father of a 2-year-old son. I didn't know what I was going to do."

Dean Oba plays wheelchair tennis during a recreation fair at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 14, 2019.
Dean Oba plays wheelchair tennis during a Recreation Fair at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 14, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

His attitude changed quickly when a recreation therapist started talking to him about the upcoming Paralympic Games in Atlanta and was soon introduced to the world of wheelchair basketball.

"I saw them crashing and their chairs falling and getting hurt, and that gave me motivation," he said.

A few years after he was exposed to the sport, he made the Puerto Rican national team and during his first season won the Puerto Rico Wheelchair Basketball Rookie of the Year award.

"I didn't know that I'd (ever) do anything like what I've done," he said.

On Friday morning, the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System organized its annual recreation fair at the George E. Wahlen Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

The fair featured activities like fencing, rock climbing and kayaking, and organizations like Wasatch Adaptive Sports, the Utah National Guard and the National Ability Center. Nonsport recreation organizations featured were the Community Writing Center and Wasatch Community Gardens.

The recreation fair began four years ago under VA Salt Lake City recreation therapist Heather Brown with the intent to connect veterans with adaptive sports and recreation.

"It has grown significantly," she said. "We used to just have booths inside with no activities and now we have a rock wall and we're reaching hundreds of veterans trying to get them to recreate and improve their health."

Veteran Kaven Leavitt ties a fly during a recreation fair at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 14, 2019.
Veteran Kaven Leavitt ties a fly during a Recreation Fair at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 14, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The fair featured over 40 nonprofit recreation organizations that offer services related to adaptive sports and recreation that allow modifications necessary for people with disabilities to participate.

"We're increasing the visibility of the opportunities for veterans to recreate," Brown said. "The importance of recreation is about improving health but also bringing meaning to your life."

The fair attracts veterans with knowledge of recreation activities, as well as veterans who aren't aware of the services, according to Brown.

Brown said most of the activities are subsidized by grants at a low cost or no cost to veterans.

At 25 years old, while serving in the Army in the 1980s, Bill Eskridge's right leg was amputated after a combat incursion on an island in Grenada.

Like Perez, he was left feeling like he'd never be able to do anything physically demanding again.

Eskridge, visiting from Rexburg, Idaho, said he began his involvement in adaptive sports when his 4-year-old grandson took an interest in skating and hockey.

"When I first started, a lot of this stuff wasn't available to anybody at that time," he said. "Now we have a lot more veterans that have disabilities because the body armor that they have for them now (keeps them alive)."

Since Eskridge took interest in adaptive sports like sled hockey and skiing two years ago, he's lost 70 pounds and his heart problems have improved.

"I could do a lot of stuff that was physically demanding, I just had to adapt what I was doing," he said.

Eskridge calls the fair a "wonderful opportunity" for all veterans.

"It helps you physically and mentally as well," he said.

Veteran Bill Hughes scales a climbing wall during a recreation fair at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 14, 2019.
Veteran Bill Hughes scales a climbing wall during a Recreation Fair at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 14, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Perez, who recently retired from wheelchair basketball after 20 years, said it's good for nonprofits and the veteran community to come together in an event like this because it creates an alliance that is able to identify the needs of veterans.

He said veterans joining recreation activities can motivate themselves to set other goals like going to college, starting a new career and becoming independent.

"They make you enjoy life no matter the circumstances you're in," he said.

Since retiring, he's challenged himself to begin a new career in skiing and will be the first Puerto Rican to represent the island in Paralympic alpine skiing.

"You don't know what you can do until you try things," Perez said.

Army veteran Mandee Stakely, a volunteer at the event with Continue Mission, said she joined the organization after her husband, who was a Navy veteran, died by suicide in 2014.

She said the people behind organizations like Continue Mission, who she calls her second family, are dedicated to raising mental health awareness and suicide prevention for veterans and are important when it comes to making veterans feel wanted and cared for by the community.

The organization also connects with veterans with disabilities by hosting recreational activities like cycling, mountain biking, hiking, disc golf, canoeing, snowshoeing, skate skiing, classic cross-country skiing, alpine skiing and snowboarding, according to its website.