Web Exclusive - March 2012
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Parks Reach Out to Disabled Vets & Soldiers

By Emily Tipping

The National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) recently announced that it had been selected by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and U.S. Paralympics, a division of the U.S. Olympic Committee, for the "Parks: Return and Restore" grant program. This program provides funds to facilitate the growth of sport and physical activity programs for disabled veterans and members of the Armed Forces.

"This is the third year we've received the grant," said Shelley O'Brien, senior manager of fund raising for NRPA. "Parks: Return and Restore focuses on wounded warriors who are either still actively coming back or are in the process of integrating back into their community, giving them an opportunity to get involved in sports and recreation. The benefits are enormous. Not every community has a program, and because of hard financial times, especially with city and state governments, some of the programs are getting cut. We want to support programs, and create and expand programs to provide opportunities for wounded warriors to help them get back into sports and reap all the benefits sports have in their lives."

NRPA has two models that enable it to provide support to communities. The first, O'Brien said, is a traditional community program. She cited the city of Reno, Nev., as an example. "Their parks and recreation department offers several programs targeted to the wounded warriors in the community," she said.

One of these programs is adaptive golf. The community purchases special golf carts that enable player to go out—even by themselves—and play a round of golf. The city also supports camps in the surrounding mountains where wounded warriors take part in a variety of sporting activities.

"They also have a great quad rugby team in Reno," O'Brien added. "If you're wheelchair bound, you also need a sporting wheelchair to play because the wheels are different, and you can't have your regular chair on a court. But it's expensive, so Reno has a borrowing program with eight or nine chairs they let people check out." This gives veterans and soldiers the chance to see if they love the chair and the sport before making such a substantial purchase (in the range of $2,000 to $3,000). Or, if the soldier can't afford such a purchase, they can make arrangements with the department to keep borrowing a chair.

"Here, our grants have supported purchasing more equipment," O'Brien said. "Reno is a great example where they've partnered closely with the Veterans Administration. What happens is often the wounded warrior gets assigned to another city for their initial health care, such as Washington, D.C., but if their home is Reno or another town, by the time they are back home they need more assistance to get out of the house."

Getting these wounded veterans out of the house and into their communities does a world of good, combating depression and other ongoing problems. "Quad rugby is fun, and because it is physical and yet something you can participate in immediately and get out there, people really like it," O'Brien said. "They join clubs, they can play their city against another. It's a positive way to get them out of the house. And, there's a camaraderie that builds between them and the other wounded warriors, where they can discuss all of the issues and challenges that they have in common."

NRPA's second model involves parks and recreation departments that are assisting with Warrior Transition Units. Examples of this model can be found in Fairfax County, Va., and Colorado Springs.

"It goes back to when the wounded warrior is brought back, they're assigned to one of these units, which is like their job in the army. And in these units, their job is to get better," O'Brien said. "They're also making a transition back to civilian life. Parks and recreation works with the Warrior Transition Unit to start that transition and to move them back into the community."

Altogether, nine park and recreation agencies will be supported by the current round of grant funding. These include:

  • Las Vegas (Nev.) Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services
  • City of Reno (Nev.) Parks, Recreation and Community Services
  • City of Clarksville (Tenn.) Parks and Recreation
  • Houston (Texas) Parks and Recreation Department
  • Fayetteville-Cumberland (N.C.) Parks and Recreation Department
  • City of Colorado Springs (Colo.) Therapeutic Recreation Program
  • Salt Lake (Utah) County Parks and Recreation
  • Fairfax County (Va.) Department of Neighborhood and Community Services
  • Three Rivers Park District (Plymouth, Minn.)

One thing O'Brien has learned through the Parks: Return & Restore and other programs at the NRPA is the value of advocacy.

"Our program has been expanding, and we're learning best practices," she said. "We share those best practices with other members. You need to be doing outreach, fundraising, marketing and advocacy in your community. All these skills have been left to park directors, but it's becoming apparent that a lot of people in the department need to be out advocating for themselves and their programs."

If community members don't realize a program exists, how can they support it? But, O'Brien said, if people do realize the program is out there and providing a great resource, then even if they personally do not benefit or participate, they may still want to back it up or speak out if the program is threatened with cuts.

"A lot of communities are seeing programs on the chopping block," O'Brien said. "Reno's program was cut for two weeks, and advocates launched a Facebook program and got the program back. Instead of being reactionary, what if you can get people out there advocating for you, and being proactive? Most people would support these programs if they were aware of them. It's so important to market and do outreach, Building awareness can assist the program.

To learn more about Parks: Return and Restore, visit http://www.nrpa.org/usoc/.