Veteran Empowerment Through Community Partnerships
In 2006, Navy Petty Officer Second Class Lucas Meyer was in a car accident and broke his neck. The accident left the 28-year-old in a wheelchair, with only limited use of his limbs. He was medically retired from the U.S. Navy. His personal life was also in shambles.
“I was mad at the world,” he remembers.
While doing rehabilitation at the Cincinnati VA Medical Center, where he slowly regained the use of one arm and the ability to stand and transfer himself, Meyer met Sandy Turvey, a recreation specialist and adaptive sports coach there. Turvey saw the “fire” in her new patient and encouraged him to compete in para-athletics.
While Meyer admits that he is a very competitive person, he says, “I never thought I could compete in anything ever again after I got hurt.”
Despite her patient’s reluctance to get involved, Turvey kept up her campaign for the next 10+ years. “I felt he was missing an important side of life … involvement in a community that doesn’t see him as a person in a wheelchair, but a person who seeks new challenges with individuals like himself, who are truly on the same playing field,” she explains.
In 2017, Turvey’s persistence finally paid off. Meyer decided to try boccia, a precision ball sport similar to bocce, but admits that initially he wasn’t very impressed with the sport. “It just looked like throwing balls,” he recalls.
But after he started throwing those balls himself—using a ramp because of the reduced function in his arms and hands—Meyer’s old competitive spirit kicked in. He asked for another ball and then another. He was quickly hooked on the game.
That year, Meyer competed in his first National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) in Cincinnati, just across the river from his home in Covington, KY. The NVWG is the largest wheelchair sporting event in the world, with more than 550 veterans from the U.S., Puerto Rico, and Great Britain going head-to-head in over 20 different sports during the seven-day event.
Meyer continued training with Turvey in 2018; however, this year’s games in Orlando weren’t as close to home. That meant Meyer would have to come up with the funds for a variety of expenses for himself and a hired caregiver.
Nicholas Pinero, who had served with Meyer in the U.S. Navy from 2001 to 2005 and who is the founder and chairman of the board of the Gilbert Foundation, a nonprofit that funds certifications for veterans, learned of his friend’s plan to compete. Pinero suggested to his board that the nonprofit expand its mission to support adaptive athletes.
“We want to show disabled veterans that they can still be passionate about things in their life and take full ownership of their passions,” explains Pinero. The Gilbert Foundation’s funding is made possible through monetary donations and partnerships with businesses donating transportation, accommodations and other goods and services. “We believe this leads to a sense of empowerment for the veterans.”
In the 2018 NVWG, Meyer not only competed in boccia but also the bowling and motor rally events. He went home with both a gold and a bronze medal.
But the medals weren’t the only rewards. “From a personal standpoint, he [Meyer] has something new to strive for and challenge himself. I’ve presented challenges to him, and he’s stepped up with a fierce competitive nature,” notes Turvey. “From a social standpoint, he now has a new circle of comrades, fellow athletes, and a brand-new support system.”
And competing has also given the now 40-year-old veteran a great deal of perspective. “When you see a woman with one arm swim the length of the pool and back, it kind of gives you a wakeup call,” he admits. “Life is not that bad for you!”
In spring 2019, the Gilbert Foundation will provide funding for Meyer to attend a winter sports clinic in Aspen, CO, where the formerly avid skier will participate in adaptive skiing for the first time. As the nonprofit’s community partnerships grow, the Gilbert Foundation plans to support other disabled veteran athletes in a wide range of competitions across the country.
“Without the Gilbert Foundation supporting me, I could not do these things,” says Meyer. “It’s opened up a lot of doors and a lot of friendships. Plus, it’s gotten my competitive juices flowing [again]!”
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