Nothing Compares to "Travel with a Purpose"

People with and without disabilities flex their arms to show their strength.
US delegation visits a rehabilitation center in Gyumri, Armenia.
Five U.S. professionals traveled to Armenia for U.S.-led adaptive sports demonstrations with local Armenians with disabilities, cultural excursions, and visits with diplomats, athletes, and coaches.

When Mary Hodge, head coach of the USA Paralympic Powerlifting team, travels internationally for competition, others often approach her looking for assistance from the United States. In the past, uncertain of how to contribute beyond just money, she kept her interactions short. Now that Mary has connected with Armenians with disabilities as part of Mobility International USA (MIUSA)’s U.S. Department of State SportsUnited exchange, she has a different perspective.

“I gained awareness of their feelings and drive toward sport – and their uncertainty in how to achieve this goal. In the future, I will stop and listen to people approaching me, while we cannot give money, time is free and our advice may be of assistance.”

The opportunity to travel with leading professionals from the U.S. while meeting non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Armenia provided multiple perspectives on addressing challenges faced in adaptive recreation, says Connor Inslee, CEO of Outdoors for All in Seattle and one of five MIUSA delegates. Through conversations with Armenians, he saw how program advocacy and development was their underlying need.

“I was reminded that it is not always about the equipment needs, techniques, or the location, but rather the simple importance of a good grassroots organization and the work we do every day.”

The exchange made Carly Schmidt, Youth Program Manager with Oregon Disability Sports, reflect on how far the U.S. has come related to overall health and wellness, and the grassroots push that got the U.S. moving forward. 

“So much of the conversation with Armenian NGOs was about not having trained coaches. People just need to be willing to step up to learn what they can to become coaches. Once individuals are identified as interested in coaching, it will be easier for the development to happen.”

In Armenia this grassroots development may also mean bringing recreation directly into the schools or institutions where youth with disabilities are, arranging for public access to use existing rehabilitation center facilities, or starting small in their own NGO buildings and then expanding once they have more people involved. 

Jenny Kern, who is a participant and coach with Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program (BORP), agrees about the need for specific outreach to youth or women with disabilities to start building their experiences with sport.

One busy afternoon, Jenny and the other U.S. delegates helped introduce hand-cycling as part of the exchange program. This included a group of youth with intellectual disabilities and for many it was their first opportunity to experience the joy of hand-cycling.

“Our connectedness was born out of a love of sports and outdoor adventures, and a desire for our efforts to meaningfully improve the prospects for Armenians with disabilities. Nothing compares to traveling internationally with a dedicated team and a purpose.”

Daniel Ferreira, adaptive sport event facilitator at Chicago Park District, is a wheelchair athlete who advocates for grassroots basketball teams throughout the U.S. He also speaks with women with disabilities about the importance of fitness and sport.

“I got to see the beginning of acceptance of young women with disabilities as contributing members of the disabled sports community in Armenia. The experience inspired me greatly and has solidified for me the need for action within the global disabled community.”

Mary is taking this to heart. She isn’t waiting too far into the future to give her time. She’s working with the U.S. Embassy in Armenia and two Armenian NGOs to set up a virtual training for coaches to work with disabled athletes in powerlifting and overall fitness.

“I left Armenia with a fulfillment that I have never felt before, new friends, new energy, and a goal to assist the Armenian people.”

This program is sponsored by the SportsUnited Division of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State.

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