I was minding my own business. It was a busy day during the holiday shopping season of 2011. I needed to find a few gifts for family members so I stopped at an outdoor gear retailer.  After paying for a few items to complete my shopping, I was on my way out of the store.  A printed flyer tacked to a bulletin board in the entryway caught my eye.  The headline stated “Kayakers Wanted.”  It was one of those printouts created on a home computer with a hand-cut paper fringe on the bottom so you can tear off a phone number for more information.  I tucked the phone number into my jacket pocket and headed home.  A couple of days later, I stuck my hand in the pocket, pulled out the slip of paper, called the number and learned that a Milwaukee chapter of Team River Runner (TRR) was about to be organized.

Craig assists Fred with a rolling lesson.

Craig assists Fred with a rolling lesson.

TRR is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that gives active duty service members and veterans an opportunity to find health, healing, and new challenges through whitewater boating and other paddling sports.  By the way, those who have heard of a non-profit organization called Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) may be wondering what relationship it has with TRR.  WWP is a fund-raising organization that sponsors the activities of service organizations to meet the needs of severely injured service members.  TRR is one of the service organizations sponsored by WWP.

When I attended one of the first TRR pool sessions at the Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee, I met a welcoming group of people, including several disabled veterans, a handful of experienced white water kayakers and two recreational therapists.  Throughout the rest of that winter, our group met each week at the hospital’s small indoor pool.  Using kayaks and gear (some of which is provided by the VA hospital and some from TRR National) the volunteers work with spinal cord injury and post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) patients who have expressed interest in kayaking.  Now in our second year as a chapter, we are looking to expand our outreach to include patients of the VA’s Polytrauma Care department, as well as veterans who are not currently patients at the VA.

The benefits of TRR have as much to do with creating a social network and support system as they do with learning water sports skills that provide an exciting adventure lifestyle that suddenly seemed lost due to injury.  The program also encourages family members to participate whenever possible.

Technique and Enurance

Tethering kayaks to a railing allows veterans to work on forward stroke technique and overall endurance.

TRR accomplishes its goals through a step-by-step approach in which paddlers learn to control a kayak in a pool, and then move to open water: rivers, lakes and oceans, where they gain additional experience and skills.  Once they have mastered the basics, local chapters take participants on paddling trips to challenge and improve skills.  The national organization of TRR also organizes trips to more progressively challenging venues in Colorado, Montana, Florida, U.S. Virgin Islands and Mexico.  Many of these trip opportunities are available at no cost to the paddlers.  Leadership training is provided so that wounded warriors can take their growing adventure skills home to share with veterans in their community.

At TRR Milwaukee, paddlers with physical injuries benefit from an array of gear created by Kevin Carr at Chosen Valley Creating Ability (www.creatingability.com).  The special seating, outriggers and hand adaptations provide fully adjustable stability, control and safety so we can fine-tune each kayak for the needs of the paddler.  A few of our paddlers with less-pronounced injuries are developing their white water skills, such as learning to roll.  We’re fortunate to have several accomplished kayakers as volunteers for the Milwaukee chapter, including Craig Esposito, John McConville and Dick Silberman.  Sara Kucik, Recreational Therapist at the VA hospital, has been invaluable in her support and serves as the primary contact person for veterans.

Our first outdoor event for TRR Milwaukee was held in May 2012 at Lannon Quarry in Menomonee Falls, Wis.  We had nine vets, a few family members, seven volunteers and staff from the VA hospital participate.  We scheduled a second flat water event for October 2012 but had to cancel because of inclement weather.  For 2013 we are expanding our scheduled activities.  In addition to returning to Lannon Quarry, we are scheduling TRR paddling events at Wausau Whitewater Park in Wausau, Wis.  Dates of events are published at the Milwaukee TRR chapter page (www.teamriverrunner.org/?q=node/1334) and on our TRR Milwaukee Facebook page (www.facebook.com/TRRMilwaukee).

Outriggers

Ken and Chad work with Roman, who paddles a kayak equipped with special seating, outriggers and hand adaptations.

Personally, I’m looking forward to attending my first TRR trip in June.  The three-day “Adapt2Achieve” Paddlesports Training Conference will be held at the Adventure Sports Center International in McHenry, Maryland.  Presentations will include nonprofit administrative topics and adaptive paddling trainings and certifications.

At Team River Runner, we teach, we encourage, we laugh and we learn together.  You don’t have to be a paddler to help.  If you want to give something back to the military veterans who have served our country, please consider donating your time, your money or both to this worthy cause.  If you know a disabled veteran who could benefit from being involved with Team River Runner, please put them in touch with TRR.  There are local chapters across the country.  If there’s no TRR chapter in your area, you can contact the national office of TRR in Washington, D.C.

My involvement with TRR started with a chance encounter; a flyer posted in the entryway of a store.  It prompted me to take that first step and make a phone call.  Maybe this article will prove to be the chance encounter that inspires your involvement.

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Ken Braband is a freelance writer and ACA certified coastal kayak instructor. He serves on the board of directors for the Lake Michigan Water Trail Association, board of directors for Friends of Lakeshore State Park, and is Milwaukee chapter co-leader for Team River Runner. A founder of the Wisconsin Geocaching Association, Ken serves as one of the geocache reviewers for the popular website Geocaching.com.

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