Team River Runner: Paddlesports for wounded warriors

I was minding my own business. It was a busy day during the holiday shopping season of 2011. I needed to find a few gifts for family members so I stopped at an outdoor gear retailer. After paying for a few items to complete my shopping, I was on my way out of the store. A printed flyer tacked to a bulletin board in the entryway caught my eye. The headline stated “Kayakers Wanted.” I tore off the phone number and stuffed it into my pocket. A couple of days later, I pulled out the slip of paper, called the number and learned that a Milwaukee chapter of Team River Runner (TRR) was about to be organized.

TRR is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that gives active duty service members and veterans an opportunity to find health, healing, and new challenges through whitewater boating and other paddling sports. By the way, those who have heard of a non-profit organization called Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) may be wondering what relationship it has with TRR. WWP is a fund-raising organization that sponsors the activities of service organizations to meet the needs of severely injured service members. TRR is one of the service organizations sponsored by WWP.

When I attended one of the first pool sessions at the Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee, I met a welcoming group of people, including several disabled veterans, a handful of experienced whitewater kayakers and two recreational therapists. Throughout the rest of that winter, our group met each week at the hospital’s indoor pool. Using kayaks and gear (some of which is provided by the VA hospital and some from TRR National) the volunteers work with spinal cord injury and post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) patients and patients who have expressed interest in kayaking. Now in our fourth year as a chapter, we are looking to expand our outreach to include patients of the VA’s Polytrauma Care department as well as veterans who are not currently patients at the VA.

The benefits of TRR have as much to do with creating a social network and support system as they do with learning paddlesport skills. that provide an exciting adventure lifestyle that suddenly seemed lost due to injury. The program also encourages family members to participate whenever possible.

TRR accomplishes its goals through a step-by-step approach in which paddlers learn to control a kayak in a pool, and then move to open water: rivers, lakes and oceans, where they gain additional experience and skills. Once they have mastered the basics, local chapters take participants on paddling trips to challenge and improve skills. The national organization of TRR also organizes trips to more progressively challenging venues in places like Colorado, Montana, Florida, U.S. Virgin Islands, Costa Rica and Mexico. Many of these trips are available at no cost to veterans. Leadership training is provided so vets can take home what they learn and use it to help grow the local chapter.

At TRR Milwaukee, paddlers with physical injuries benefit from an array of gear created by Kevin Carr at Chosen Valley Creating Ability (www.creatingability.com). Special seating, outriggers and hand adaptations provide fully adjustable stability, control and safety so we can fine-tune our kayaks for the needs of each paddler. Some of our paddlers are developing their whitewater skills, such as learning to roll. We’re fortunate to have several accomplished kayakers as volunteers for the Milwaukee chapter, including co-leader Craig Esposito.

For 2015 our third annual event at Wausau Whitewater Park in Wausau, Wis. is scheduled for June 6-7. Dates of this and other events are published at the Milwaukee TRR chapter page (www.teamriverrunner.org) and on our TRR Milwaukee Facebook page (www.facebook.com/TRRMilwaukee).

To volunteer, you don’t have to be a veteran or a paddler. If you want to give something back to the military veterans who have served our country, please consider donating your time, your money or both to this worthy cause. If you know a disabled veteran who could benefit from being involved with Team River Runner, please put them in touch with us. There are local chapters across the country. If there’s no TRR chapter in your area, contact the national office in Washington, D.C.

At Team River Runner we teach. We encourage. We laugh. We learn together. My involvement with TRR started with a chance encounter; a flyer posted in the entryway of a store. It prompted me to take that first step and make a phone call. Maybe this story will be the chance encounter that inspires you to get involved.

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