SPORTS JAMBOREE FOR BLIND AND WHEELCHAIR PARTICIPANTS

Are you a blind or wheelchair individual and want to participate in sport activities that you usually are not able to participate in due to your disability? Are you age 40 or younger? If so, the International Sports Jamboree provided by the Verizon West Virginia Pioneers is the place for you! The jamboree takes place once a year during the third weekend of July at North Bend State Park in Cairo, West Virginia. The jamboree receives participants from both the United States and Canada with the majority coming from within West Virginia. The participants stay at the North Bend State Park’s lodge for Friday and Saturday evenings. Some of the participants and their family members stay in cabins within the park.

I have been attending a smaller version of the West Virginia jamboree in Runnemede, NJ, for about four or five years before I was first invited to attend the West Virginia sports jamboree in 2008. The first year I attended the New Jersey sports jamboree, I was introduced to a low-riding three-wheel bicycle. Prior to riding the bike, I was unable to ride a regular two-wheel bicycle due to balance problems. But the low-riding three-wheel bicycle allowed me to ride a bike without worrying about my balance. What a thrill it was as I rode around the paved area. Unfortunately, the New Jersey sports jamboree folded in 2012 due to multiple reasons. But luckily the West Virginia jamboree has obtained sponsors, which allows me to keep attending each year. Each year I eagerly await to hear if I will receive the letter asking me if I wish to attend. I never say NO, because the Jamboree is just too much fun to miss.

Most participants arrive some time on Friday, which allows them time to settle in their rooms, time to practice some of the events (especially good if you’ve never attended before), and time to meet old friends and perhaps some new friends. First, I should tell you about the park. The lodge is in the North Bend State Park, which is huge and offers areas for camping, trailors, fishing, and hiking. The lodge is at the top of the hill and the events are held down in the valley. Vans, some equipped to handle wheelchairs, take us up and down the hill all day long. Friday night dinner is held in the pavilion in the valley. Afterwards is one of my favorite parts; the LIVE entertainment (terrific country and gospel singers) at the amphitheater. Rows of seating are carved out in the hill facing the amphitheater. One of the performers, Tommy Griffith, does a little bit of country and gospel. During his performance, Tommy makes a point of going into the audience and shaking everyone’s hand. Tommy is also a little bit funny when he forgets a line or two while singing or when he can’t find his glasses to read the music! We have also seen his little boy grow and sometimes accompany his dad on stage.

Saturday morning is the big day. Everyone wakes eagerly for the day to begin, so they can participate in as many events as possible. The participants are anxious, smiling, excited as they enter for the opening ceremony. Roaring, cheering, clapping parents cheer each of the participants as their name is called. Then the fun begins as the blind and wheelchair participants each go to their first event. The day’s events include: a 40-yard dash (my favorite), beeping air gun, team relay, beeping basketball free-throw, golf putting contest, beeping horseshoe toss, beeping Frisbee toss, jam toss, bowling, and the bicycle race (also my favorite). Well, truthfully, I love participating in all of the events! And I should tell you that at each of the events, you get a couple of practice shots first.

Look out as the blind participants as they burn up rubber! They are harnessed up to a chain from a wired-track and we fly down the 40-yards! The 40-yard dash, one of my two favorite events, where I usually burn up the most rubber as I run like the wind to the other end of the track! Pretend Darth Vader is on your trail and run, run, run! They make sure to have two strong men catch me at the end. Next stop, air gun! The blind participants listen very carefully to the sound of the beeper to determine if they are aligned with the center of the target or not. The beeper will change pitch and frequency as you get closer to the middle of the target. Then, it’s fire in the hole! Afterwards you receive the paper target to see how you did. Sometimes, you hit the center and sometimes not!

After the firing range, it is time to see if I can sink a couple of putts. And yes, I had a couple of good putts. The putting contest is a lot shorter distance than what I experience at the golf outings I attend with the Middle Atlantic Blind Golf Association! Then I was off to beeper Frisbee toss where you attempt to throw the Frisbees into a beeping net. For some, it was challenging, especially when homing in on the beeper. But I gave it my best shot. Then, to end the morning, it was time for the jam toss. Jam toss is when you throw bean bags into in a slanted board with a hole. Let me tell you, this is challenging! Trying to figure out just how hard or gentle to throw the bean bag to make it into one seemingly tiny hole! I didn’t do too badly I thought.

After a quick lunch break in the pavilion it was time to try my hand at the basketball free-throw. You receive a certain amount of points for hitting the backboard, hitting the rim, and sinking a basket (of course that is the goal!). Everyone tries their best to sink the basketball, some with the aid of the beeper and some prefer someone tapping the basket rim. I gave it all my best efforts; ding it hits the rim; ding it hit the backboard; whoosh, it goes over the board; swish it goes in! Yeah! I thought I did pretty well.

Next event up: the team relay. Team relay has the blind participant run down the 40-yard dash and the wheelchair participant zooms back down from the other end of the track.

Heigh ho, heigh ho, it is off to bowling I go! First, this is not your typical bowling lane – it’s outside. Secondly, the pins are on a wooden lane lined with felt. And third, luckily, you slid the ball down a ramp onto the lane! So the challenge is to figure out just exactly how to angle the ramp, so the ball goes directly down the center, and luckily, all the pins come tumbling down!

The last event for me would have been the horseshoe toss. Both the blind and visually impaired participants are blindfolded and you attempt to throw the horseshoes at the beeping stake until one of the participants scores 21 points. I had never played horseshoes until I started attended this jamboree and I really enjoy the challenge horseshoes offers. And usually they have tandem bikes (another favorite of mine!). Two bikes are connected together with two bars in between them. A sighted individual is on one and the blind on the other. Going around the track, as fast as I can, is so much fun. I can’t wait for next year!

Saturday dinner is usually the most tender roast beef that they have been cooking all day long. So delicious! Fresh corn on the cob too! Generally, after dinner participants, parents, and volunteers gather at the amphitheater for the award ceremony. As each participant’s name is called, beaming smiles and cheers of delight expound from everyone. The excitement and joy is felt throughout the room. Once the award ceremony concludes we have the talent show, where everyone has an opportunity to perform something. Some people sing, some dance, some played a musical instrument, and some told jokes. Some acts were better than others. I participated in the talent show by singing “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley. Everyone enjoyed my performance and I believe I did a very good job. Of course mom cheered loudly for me!

And the evening does not end there, but continues with a dance. And this is just no ordinary dance. The volunteers tape bubble wrap on the floor. Each participant, blind or wheel chair-makes no difference, loves to pop the bubbles as they dance the night away! The energized dancers are rewarded with pizza and snacks.

Sadly, Sunday morning we wish all our friends, new and old, a fond farewell, as it is time for each of us to return home. We have been able to experience some sports that we never would have had the opportunity to try. And we can never thank all the volunteers too much for such a memorable weekend at the West Virginia North Bend State Park.

The West Virginia Verizon Pioneers are a non-profit organization. Some supporting Pioneers come as far away as Canada each year! There are many volunteers, young and old, helping the participants to take part in each of the events, cheering them on, and fixing and serving the meals. One volunteer, Bryanna, a West Virginia college student comes every year. She is very short compared to me, but she helps me run in the 40-yard dash. Mom says it’s too bad she already has a boyfriend, because she is so cute! I know, like the rest of the participants, that I really look forward to this event every year. The Pioneers rely on generous donations from businesses and supporting parents to run this event. So if you are a blind or wheel chair individual interested in attending this event, please contact Lonnie Pennington. You will be so glad you did!

If you want more details about the West Virginia jamboree, please visit http://www.newvision-wvapioneers.org/projects/jamboree or contact jamboree chairperson Lonnie Pennington at 304-722-3078 or wvufan1967@suddenlink.net.

Golf for the Blind: Turning an Obstacle into an Opportunity

Golf is a great game to play from April to late October. What many don’t realize is that not only sighted individuals enjoy playing it, but blind and visually impaired individuals as well.

In 1948, four blind individuals from the Philadelphia area who enjoy playing the game of golf joined together to form what is now known as the Middle Atlantic Blind Golf Association. Sixty-nine years later, the organization has over 115 blind and visually impaired members, and sighted coaches who help with estimating distances and alerting the golfers to hazards such as sand traps and water. When the organization started, they had a handful of outings. Today the MABGA plays about 30 to 40 outings in the Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey area, including its annual Pro Am Tournament and annual fundraising tournament. When the organization was first formed, it only had male members and coaches. Today the organization has a mixture of both male and female members and coaches.

I first got involved with the MABGA back in 2001 when I attended their Junior Blind Golf program’s spring golf clinic at the Overbrook School for the Blind. While at that golf clinic, I had to overcome the challenge of doing a short swing since the course had very short holes! The MABGA Junior Golf program is for blind and visually impaired kids ages 5 through 21 in the Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Delaware area. In addition to attending the golf clinics at Overbrook, they pair the blind golfer with a golf pro at the blind child’s local golf course for free golf lessons. All junior golf clinics are free to attend. I enjoyed it so much that I graduated from the junior blind golf program into the main organization of MABGA back in 2009, but I didn’t start playing with the main organization until 2010 due to attending classes at Burlington County College (now known as Rowan College at Burlington County).

When a sighted individual learns that a blind individual is playing golf, they always wonder how the blind individual can play such a challenging game. The blind golfer goes out with a sighted golfer, also known as a coach. This individual coach assists the blind golfer with club selection for a given shot (if needed), determining the distance for a given shot, lining up the ball with the club, finding the ball after the shot, and anything else that may be needed for the blind golfer to make a given shot. Most blind golfers use nonvisual techniques such as putting different tactile distinguishing tape on their clubs. For example, MABGA president Mario Tobia uses this technique to independently determine the right club for a certain shot. He uses one type of tape for his woods, one for his irons, and one for his wedges. The tape is placed incrementally on the club shaft near the clubhead. Outside of that, it is up to the blind golfer to do what is needed to take a golf swing. Believe it or not, some blind golfers take better golf swings than our sighted peers!

I really enjoy playing golf. For me, it is both challenging and satisfying to play a mainstream game. When I graduated from the junior golf program in 2009, there were about 20 to 30 participants with golf clinics at two locations (Overbrook School for the Blind and Walnut Lane Country Club in Philadelphia). As of this year, the program has 78 participants with clinics at five locations located in the Philadelphia area. They have also expanded by adding a group in northern New Jersey. The director of the MABGA Junior Golf program, Norman Kritz is working on building golf courses at schools for the blind in every state. He started with the Overbrook School for the Blind in Pennsylvania which opened in 1996. Since then he opened one in northern New Jersey, and plans are in the works to build courses in Georgia and Maryland.

You too, as a blind or visually impaired individual, can turn the obstacle of blindness into an opportunity by joining the Middle Atlantic Blind Golf Association. After an individual submits a membership application form, and approved by the Membership Committee, the blind golfer becomes a provisional member until voted in as a full member at the annual Fall General Meeting which takes place in November or December. Once approved as a full member, the blind golfer is obligated to pay $100 a year for membership dues, which allows them to attend all of the outings listed in the current year’s schedule.

This year’s annual fundraising tournament is scheduled on September 5th at the Ace Club in Ambler, PA. The registration cost for the general public is $225 a person, and there are special reduced costs for a MABGA member and their coaches. The registration cost includes brunch, a round of 18 holes, cocktail hour, and dinner. Additional information on the tournament can be viewed at www.mabga.org/annual-tournament.htm. Since the organization is a 501c3 nonprofit, the annual tournament is the main vehicle to raise funds for the upcoming year.

If you wish to learn more about the Middle Atlantic Blind Golf Association, please contact President Mario Tobia at mabga@comcast.net or 215-745-2323. Please view their promotional video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=chWLCsKCphE and visit their website at www.mabga.org.

Getting Into The Game of Life

Linda Melendez, before and after
From obesity to half marathon day. The picture on the left was taken on Mother’s Day 2013. The picture on the right was taken on April 16, 2016, 120 pounds lighter and wearing her pink Team Princess Warrior T-shirt

Editor’s Note: Linda Melendez currently serves as board member of the National Federation of the Blind of New Jersey (NFBNJ)and chairperson of the NJ Sports and Recreation Committee. I have done 40-yard dashes, but never half-marathon running! What follows is Linda’s presentation on being a half-marathon runner during the 2016 NFBNJ State Convention regarding various recreational activities.

Getting into the game of life began for me November of 2013. My mom had passed away On June 8th 2013 and I was devastated.  My only son was leaving for basic training. I was a mess mentally, emotionally and physically. In a desperate attempt to help me my son asked if I would work out with him while he got ready for basic training. To be honest, I had no desire to work out. I was morbidly obsess weighing 280 pounds and did not think I could participate in any type of exercise or recreation program.

To my surprise I was wrong. I began slowly and saw results almost immediately because I stayed focused, dedicated and determined. I worked out 4 days a week and lost 120 pounds in 15 months. During this time I evolved into the healthy woman I am today and became a Warrior Princess. I actually fell in love with working out and for the first time in my life I made myself a priority. I was also forming a healthy relationship with food by tracking my food daily and learning about calories eaten and calories burnt. With this new lifestyle I became a participant in my life as opposed to being a spectator. This new lifestyle was empowering for me. On a personal level I had never felt so strong and accomplished.

To help maintain my weight loss I wanted to incorporate a regular cardio regiment that I could enjoy besides going to the gym. I took a running class for beginners and absolutely fell in love with running. I was doing 5K’s runs on a regular basis and the head coach pulled me aside at the end of the six week course to tell me that I could run a half marathon. Doing a half marathon was on my physical fitness bucket list so I was excited when an accomplished runner/trainer saw this potential in me. This coach also voted me class valedictorian.

Three months later I took a 15 week half marathon training class that meet every Saturday in Asbury Park for weekly long group runs. We ran no matter what the weather was from January until April. We were given a schedule of other runs to do during the week so we could build up for our weekly long runs. Each week the runs got longer until we built up to 12 miles. At the end of this training class I ran my first half marathon. It took me 2 hours and 52 minutes but I completed it.  Also, in June of 2016 I joined the Jersey Shore Running Club “JSRC” to strengthen and solidify my relationship and commitment to running.

Everyone was amazed that a legally blind person could achieve this. I was not amazed because I knew I had it in me. The other runners who run by me week after week would always ask “if I was ok”.  My slogan became “I got this!” You see for the past three years since embarking on this journey I have been living the life I want. I continue to exercise regularly, eat healthy and run 2 – 3 times a week.  I also sign up for any races that I can get a ride too or Access Link will bring me too.  I am raising the expectations and awareness of everyone around me and this motivates me even more. I want to show others that being blind will not put limitations on me and dictate what I can or cannot do and accomplish.

Since becoming healthy every January I make a physical fitness bucket list of goals and activities I want to achieve that yeah. In 2017 I will complete another half marathon after knee replacement surgery. In 2018 I will begin my training to run a marathon in 2018. We need to get into the game of life by raising our own expectations. We are stronger than we think we are! We need to set reasonable goals.  We need to be dedicated, determined and focused on meeting them. Let’s all start living the life we want by getting out of our comfort zone. Let’s be a participant in our lives! You got this!  Embark on your journey and get into the game of LIFE!

Additional Information

If you wish to learn more about being a blind half-marathon runner, or about Linda’s story, you can contact her at lindamelendez220@gmail.com.