published Sunday, July 17th, 2011

Record crowd at SPARC day

Chattanooga’s annual water sports day for the disabled is a family outing. Participants are accompanied by family members, and many of those helping with the Sports, Arts and Recreation of Chattanooga event at the First Lutheran Church Camp on Possum Creek do so with spouses or other relatives or significant others as fellow volunteers.

Beyond that, the gathering gives the impression of a big family reunion, complete with the “father of adaptive water skiing” — Phil Martin from near Macon, Ga. — and a large shared meal.

All of that was the case again Saturday, when SPARC hit the water for the 20th time and had a record number exceeding 290.

First-time participant Montrell Crayton of Chattanooga was there with his brother, Terrance, along with Candace Jones and Nin’Aette Thomas. While Montrell, whose legs are paralyzed after two gunshot wounds 25 months ago, got to water ski for the first time ever, the others enjoyed tubing and swimming.

Jones and Terrance Crayton also rode in a canoe. They have a 4-year-old son who gets physical therapy at Pediatrics Plus from Debbie Hightower, the spark of SPARC, and that connection led to Saturday’s day at the lake.

“It was all right,” Montrell said of his morning ride on adaptive ski equipment. The 28-year-old was promised a “faster ski” in the afternoon.

He played basketball, football, soccer and tennis in his younger days but has missed sports activity since his injuries. After Saturday’s venture, he said he also planned to try SPARC’s adaptive bicycling program.

New volunteers included Roger Knipp and his wife, Trudy Harper, who had watched the proceedings with interest in the past. They live in Texas but have a home next to her parents’ on Possum Creek.

“Every year we would watch this through binoculars and wonder, ‘What are they doing?’ ‘What kind of thing are they on?’” Knipp said. “Last year we said we need to get involved with whoever’s doing this.”

Harper eventually learned that the third Saturday in July meant disabled skiing, so the couple did Internet searches and found a newspaper article from last July that explained SPARC and what the event was about. Then Knipp emailed Hightower and committed to help.

He and his wife brought four other people with them, plus three personal watercraft and a Mastercraft ski boat.

“We flew in last night from Dallas to be here, and we’ve seen some amazing things today,” Knipp said.

Also helping for the first time were Joe Palmer, a 25-year-old owner of a local excavating company, and his girlfriend Mackenzie Stewart, 23. Palmer, a former mountain bike racer, got pulled into SPARC’s cycling program through Jerry Hightower, Debbie’s husband, and talked Stewart into joining him. The biking led to the water day, when the couple helped and brought a pontoon boat and some food.

“I have had a really good time,” Stewart said.

“It’s amazing to look at the support out here,” Palmer said. “It’s a community coming together, and everybody does whatever’s needed. It’s really rewarding.”

The volunteers also included Jared Magee, 42, and his son Andrew, 16. Jared was Jerry Hightower’s “little brother” through Big Brothers Big Sisters from 1979 to ’87. They did numerous family events together, and many of them happened to be sports-related, including water skiing.

“If Jerry asks me to do something, I don’t even think about it. I just do it,” Jared said during his second SPARC day.

“He had a smile on his face sitting on the steps the first time I went to see him,” Jerry said, “and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him without a smile.”

Debbie Hightower’s brother Ed Pickett was back as always, along with her Pediatrics Plus co-workers, Tim Higdon from Pepsi and Elaine Adams from the therapeutic division of Chattanooga Parks and Recreation, one of the event’s main sponsors along with the Osborne Foundation, Pepsi and Kohl’s. And Al Kaye was back with reinforcements from the Patricia Neal center in Knoxville.

Also helping as usual were the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, Volunteer State Water Rescue and Hamilton County EMS.

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