In high school, Ashley Cooper-Heath likes to say she was “a cliché.” She was on the track team, was a cheerleader, and was Homecoming Queen.
But since the beautiful young woman was involved in a car accident in 2004 at age 20, her life has been challenging in ways that most people could never imagine. Paralyzed from the waist down, she is in a wheelchair. She also has limited range of motion in her left shoulder, and has severe short-term memory problems.
She’s made her life a story of triumph by focusing on what she can do, rather than what she can’t. She’s a paratriathlete, competing in triathlons with adaptive equipment. She also plays tennis, water skis, and enjoys archery and billiards thanks to the Brooks Rehabilitation Adaptive Sports & Recreation Program, a nationally unique program that offers a multitude of free athletic and recreational activities for people with disabilities on the First Coast.
She joined the wheelchair tennis program in 2007, and playing weekly changed her life. She met her husband James, through it and many friends.
“I had never played tennis, and I loved it,” Cooper-Heath says. “It got me back moving. The people were really nice – they were people who I could relate to. We all had disabilities, so it wasn’t a big deal.”
Occupational therapist Alice Krauss created the sports and recreation program in January 2007 with the aim of improving the lives of people with disabilities involving paralysis and other mobility impairments. It focuses on helping them physically, socially, emotionally, educationally, and spiritually – “finding meaning and purpose in life through engagement in self-directed activity,” Krauss says.
The program started with four sports: basketball, tennis, rugby, and hand cycling. Now it offers 15 regular weekly activities and two special events a month at no cost to participants, including rowing, golf, surfing, horseback riding, and bowling. Individuals can choose whether to participate at a recreational or competitive level; most are in it for fun and socialization but some compete at local and national championships for Paralympic status.
The program will serve about 1,000 people this year, and about 60 of those are Brooks-sponsored competitive athletes, Krauss says. Brooks provides the funding for equipment, travel, training, and tournament registration, and in return participants commit to a disciplined code of conduct and training.
Overall however, “this program is not trying to grow competitive athletes,” Krauss says. “It is trying to grow happy, healthy and productive individuals who happen to be living with a disability.”
The athlete’s ages range from 2 to 97, with disabilities that include those caused by strokes, traumatic brain injury, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, amputations and muscular dystrophy. The equipment they use includes recumbent bicycles for cycling; adaptive ramps and bumpers for bowling; and custom-fit rugged wheelchairs for rugby.
The program’s popularity and growth “is a testament that we can all do more than we think we can do,” Krauss says. “We tell ourselves stories about self-imposed limitations, starting with ‘I can’t.’”
The program also relies on the help of dedicated volunteers, Krauss says – and on the space, resources and equipment donated by community partners. Rugby and basketball are held at the Brooks Family YMCA, rowing is held at Jacksonville University, cyclists bike on the Jacksonville Baldwin Trail and the Florida Blue parking lot, tennis is held at Florida State College at Jacksonville, archery takes place at the Fort Caroline Archery Club, golf is played at the Jacksonville Beach Golf Club, and the North Florida Gun Club sponsors trap shooting. Brooks one day hopes to build a central multi-sport facility, Krauss says. “But since we don’t have it yet, these community partners are critical.”
Until this month, participants had to arrange their own transportation to activities and events. Now Brooks has a wheelchair accessible bus that offers limited transportation, and they hope to increase transportation services in the future to serve more people.
Stan Harris of Orange Park, who has Parkinson’s disease, takes public transportation buses to activities. Sometimes he has to take a series of buses, which can lead to a three hour trip each way, “but it’s worth it,” he says. An elementary school teacher, he participates in everything he can during the summer, including bowling, billiards, skeet shooting, archery, rowing, surfing, and most recently soaring – flying in an unpowered aircraft with a pilot.
“I never did any of these things before, except bowling,” he said one recent day at Bowl America, where that activity regularly meets. This program “gave me an opportunity to try new things, and it’s been fantastic.”
The program is designed to allow a participant’s disability to blend into the background of their life, Krauss says. “Instead of waking up in the morning and thinking about what they can’t do, they think about what they can do, and their plans for the day. Like ‘I’m going bowling,’ ‘I’m getting on a plane to go to a national soccer tournament,’ or ‘I’m going surfing.’”
Dani Sapiro, 29, who has been in a wheelchair her entire life, thinks about rowing. Out on the St. Johns River at JU one recent day, she flies across the water, rowing with Brooks staff member Scott Brown, who is also a Paralympic adaptive rowing champion. Sapiro, training for a competition in Philadelphia this month, says she’s been rowing with Brooks for six or seven years and loves it.
“It’s great exercise,” she says. “When you’re on the water, all your worries go away. It’s kind of meditative, and I can do this competitively as well.”
The program is designed to help people participate in a sport they previously loved or to take up new ones, Krauss says. “Sometimes it’s about re-connecting with their past and sometimes it’s about creating their future. Both are hugely important to quality of life.”