published Sunday, July 21st, 2013

SPARC day brings disabled to water

Contributed photo by Maureen Bruno
A volunteer rides along beside a delighted disabled skier using adaptive equipment during the annual SPARC water sports day Saturday at Possum Creek.
Contributed photo by Maureen Bruno A volunteer rides along beside a delighted disabled skier using adaptive equipment during the annual SPARC water sports day Saturday at Possum Creek.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

SPARC in the water! Everybody in!

That's the premise of the annual outing on the third Saturday in July at the First Lutheran Church camp property at Possum Creek, and the premise becomes reality every year as children and adults with disabilities get to ski or participate in other water sports that normally would be unavailable to most of them.

There were 239 participants and helpers from as far away as Colorado and Texas for Saturday's 22nd event conducted by Sports, Arts and Recreation of Chattanooga, a chapter of Disabled Sports USA.

Bruce Strom flew back to Chattanooga for the second year in a row after moving to Colorado. He was the first "guinea pig," according to event coodinator Debbie Hightower, whom she and her husband, Jerry, Connie Petty and a couple of others took out skiing in 1992 before the first SPARC day.

Strom, now 58, grew up skiing near Augusta, Ga., but had an accident that paralyzed his legs. Jerry Hightower saw him working his way up Cameron Hill in a wheelchair one day and asked if he wanted a ride, and Strom told him he was doing it for the exercise. So Jerry told him, "You need to join our group!" Strom related Saturday.

When that group got some adaptive ski equipment and started talking about what to do with it, Strom volunteered to give it a try. That first time included a stretch in which he was pulled underwater, unable to be released from his rope, "but I was always able to hold my breath pretty long, so I survived," he said. "It was exciting, and we finally got the hang of it."

Now, he marveled, "this thing has just blown up. It's amazing. All the people who volunteer, it's amazing."

Said Rebecca Sadowitz of Chattanooga, a 21-year-old who began participating in SPARC days when she was 5 or so: "This day is incredible. SPARC has made just a big difference not only in my life but in everyone's life here.

"I was supposed to do some studying this afternoon, but I decided to stay. I'm having the time of my life."

She and her brother Sammy, 20, have Asperger syndrome, which is at the high end of the autistic spectrum but generally includes social and physical clumsiness. Both graduated with honors from Soddy-Daisy High School and are in the MoSAIC program at the University of Tennessee and Chattanooga, and both did triple-bar skiing Saturday. Sammy has a twin, Phillip, also with autism, who has participated before but wasn't present this time.

"This was the only opportunity when they were young to socialize in a safe environment in the water," their mother, Rachel, said. "I couldn't take my kids out in the water even with lifejackets. I just didn't have enough hands."

She found out about the SPARC program through her children's physical therapists from Pediatrics Plus, Debbie Hightower and Becky Hardin. Now Rachel Sadowitz helps on SPARC day, too, bringing a variety of crafts "for the kids to do while they're waiting to ski," she said.

Son Sammy has a similar project: At his own expense, he brings a bunch of rods and bait and leads fishing sessions during the SPARC day.

His sister has seen the joy of the day from a physically challenged perspective as well. After a year of being unable to walk, she had surgery on both feet in 2007 but thought she would never ski again.

"It gave me a glimpse into their world," Rebecca said. "I was fortunate to find the right surgeon (Dr. Angus McBryde, now retired from the Andrews group in Alabama), to get me back on my feet, but I know what it's like to have to use a wheelchair."

The disabilities dealt with also include blindness and deafness, so volunteers are needed to help in communication as well as in getting skiers in the water and around the lake. Others help in registration, parking, setup and cleanup and preparing and serving the huge picnic-type lunch, complete with many desserts.

Also present for support were crews from Chattanooga-Hamilton County EMS, the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, the Sale Creek Volunteer Fire Department and Ike Cooper from the Red Bank police department and his son C.J. Al Kaye as usual brought a truckload of equipment from the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center, and Joe Thompson and Michael Schmidt accompanied him from Knoxville.

One family that helped at SPARC day for the first time last year was back in full force Saturday, even though their leader was absent. Jeff Francis, a Chattanooga police captain, died in February, but his widow, Gail, son Chris and Chris's fiancee, Patricia "P.J." Sexton, returned with older son Daniel, a Chattanooga PD homicide investigator who had to work on the third Saturday of July in 2012.

Several of Gail's sign-language students at Tennessee Temple also were in attendance. She heads that work at the university, and her husband was an adjunct faculty member.

The family brought four paddle boards, three standard kayaks and two sit-on-top kayaks last year. This year they came with four paddle boards of their own and two provided by L2 Boards of Chattanooga.

"We wanted to be able to continue the work Dad was so passionate about, giving exposure of the outdoors to new people -- people who normally who wouldn't have that chance," Daniel Francis said.

His mother admitted that she knew helping in SPARC day would stir memories and emotions that could be hard to suppress, "but Jeff wouldn't have it any other way, I know," she said. "He would want us here."

Chris, 23, noted that his father's absence meant more of the planning aspect for him, but he also works with the cave and cliff team for Chattanooga-Hamilton County Rescue, so he's up for challenges.

"He introduced me to caving and rock climbing, and more hiking and things like that," said Sexton, who has known him most of her life but started dating him when both were lifeguards at Camp Joy, which was operated by their mutual church -- Highland Park Baptist at the time. Their wedding is set for Aug. 3.

Sexton studied signing under Gail Francis, as did TTU volleyball teammate Rachel Binkley, another repeat volunteer Saturday. Binkley took outdoors-related classes from Jeff Francis as well as signing courses -- her major -- from Gail, and the recent Temple graduate said SPARC day was a "perfect mixture" of the two disciplines.

Haley Runion, a national-level able-bodied competitor from McDonald, Tenn., worked her first SPARC day as a side skier Saturday, and her dad, Frank, did pull release in one of the boats. He helped teach Chattanooga's Stephanie Dodd to become a national champion disabled skier after her paralyzing wreck.

Dodd often has been at SPARC days and was back Saturday to provide encouragement. Other faithful regulars represented the Hightower network, including Debbie's boss, Janice Jones, and her brother, Ed Pickett, now at Belk in Hamilton Place. But a new network of volunteers is branching out through Trudy Harper, a Soddy-Daisy High School graduate who with her husband, Roger Knipp, is in the process of moving back to Possum Creek since their retirement from energy-related companies in Texas.

They saw the SPARC event while visiting her parents and checked into it, and starting in 2011 they provided a MasterCraft ski boat and some WaveRunners and bringing in more people to help.

Harper's recruits include Judge Marty Lasley, a high school classmate, and his family, and eight visitors Saturday from Texas, one from Knoxville and another from Nashville -- "people who love this stuff as much as I do," she said.

"I know what these kids feel, getting out and water skiing, and I love it for them," Harper said. "I love being part of it."

One person who knows well the day's joys from both sides is Sharon Stolberg, a 4-foot-6 Cleveland resident who teaches special education at Allen Elementary in Soddy-Daisy. The 36-year-old Florida native was struck with juvenile-onset rheumatoid arthritis but is very physically active and serves on the SPARC board.

"I do everything. I rock climb, hand cycle, kayak, hike -- and other things. I have not snow-skied, but maybe in January I'll do that," Stolberg said. "This event is huge. It's always so positive."

Contact Ron Bush at rbush@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6291.

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