The Last Word with…Ashley Thomas

Founder & Executive Director, Bridge II Sports

Ashley ThomasAshley Thomas began her career in the recreation industry later in life. Having grown up with spina bifida and some physical limitations, Thomas did not have access to recreational activities or team sports.

"I discovered adapted sports much later in life that made such a joyful impact. I discovered the joy of teamwork, cardio and the opportunity to be part of a greater community. This joy of sport and recreation was the catalyst that motivated me to start Bridge II Sports and adapted sports in my community," said Thomas, who is the founder and executive director of Bridge II Sports, an organization in Durham, N.C., that educates, develops and implements opportunities for youth and adults with physical disabilities to play individual, team and recreational sports. "Through this journey, I educated the need, difference, and developed great collaborations to provide different adapted sports with our local recreation programs in the state.

"Everyone needs activity," she added. "Recreation was a place my limited body found restoration. Being able to play wheelchair basketball, kayak, participate in a 5K, was life-giving because it allowed me to connect with others, relate to 'normal' activities, opening up new shared journeys. I personally discovered that physical activity helped with pain management, creating emotional strength."

Thomas, who loves to go kayaking in her free time, wants others to have the same opportunities. "As a person who uses a wheelchair, kayaking gives me access to places I would never be able to go. The water, woods and nature restores my soul," she said. "I will try most adapted sports. I also enjoy doing 5K. Gardening and refinishing furniture are also some of my favorite activities! I also love teaching and speaking."

As founder of Bridge II Sports, Thomas is the visionary, and loves the role as she gets to develop and share experiences with many people in different journeys in life, sharing the impact of adapted sports on children, adults and military.

"I have had a good life, raised three children, lived abroad, and these experiences enable me to share the needs of people with disability respectfully, with honesty and conviction," she said.

Thomas currently is advocating for a statewide adapted sport program in North Carolina public schools. "With that, there is a component of collaboration with parks and rec across the state," she said.

She also has worked with program development, developing best practices and allowing people to discover their abilities vs. judging them based on weakness.

"As founder, I learned all the parts needed to establish an organization—cultivating a board and committees, implementing the foundational policies, writing successful grants, public speaking and presenting, and executing the all-too-important systems to track outcomes," she said, adding that she has implemented core principles for everyone associated with Bridge II Sports to adhere to:

  • "We are about people development. Sports is the tool that is used to build: confidence, self-control, independence and expectation of ability."
  • "We are a community where everyone belongs."
  • "As experts, we create safety for those at risk to try."
  • "Each person is an individual; each disability is different. We must respect those differences and work with each person as an individual."
  • "There is a sport for everyone. We provide the space to enjoy the journey of discovery."

As executive director, Thomas holds staff accountable to those standards. She also mentors and teaches future leaders.

"I find this very satisfying," she said.

When discussing her responsibilities, Thomas noted that one of the first requirements for all leaders of nonprofits is to be a "wearer of many hats." She added, "This position demands I shift from program development, to financial planning, to advocate, to mentor, to landscaper. Oftentimes, I'm required to make these changes all in one day."

One of her main goals as founder and executive director is to reproduce herself. "I want the great work that Bridge II Sports is accomplishing not to merely continue, but to thrive and grow beyond me," she said. "I have done much, but now is the time for telling my story and giving voice to those unspoken stories that have crossed my path. I also have to unload my experiences and skill onto those who will pick up the true vision of Bridge II Sports and carry it forth with new energy and wisdom from those who have gone before."