Helping disabled vets reinvent their lives through water sports

SAN DIEGO — Recently, while writing a story about Challenged Sailors, the inspirational nonprofit providing sailing opportunities for the disabled, I met Peter Ballantyne, executive director of the Cal-Diego Chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA). He accompanied local members coming for a day of sailing on San Diego Bay in CS’s specially adapted Martin 16s. I was curious how he’d got involved in adaptive sports.

Ballantyne, a life-long boater, water sports enthusiast and licensed captain, grew up on the water in Long Island, spending summer vacations on Lake George, boating and waterskiing. When he first moved to San Diego in 1984 to accompany his neuroscientist wife to UCSD he quickly made a discovery that would change the course of his career.

“I saw someone on Mission Bay on a sit-ski, a chair on two bars on the water. I love waterskiing and wanted to learn about that,” he recalled. Able-bodied himself, he found himself drawn to helping the disabled experience the pleasures and freedom of water activities.

He approached the Mission Bay Aquatic Center, a water sports center run jointly by SDSU’s and UCSD’s student recreation associations, and explored their adaptive water ski and sailing programs. For sailing he learned they used J24s, specially fitted with high-backed fiberglass chairs.

“I saw that and fell in love with the program. I got involved because I wanted to share waterskiing. In a year and a half I was running the program,” Ballantyne explained.

He wound up operating the aquatic center for 17 years, working with other organizations, including the City of San Diego Disabled Services and Sharp Rehabilitation, with which he started “A Day on the Bay” for the disabled in 1988. The center branched out and offered other adaptive water sports, including kayaking, wakeboarding and Jet skiing. They assisted other organizations beyond the region (including rehab centers) create their own adaptive water sports programs.

For the last six years he’s “come home” to his first love, organizing programs, especially water sports, for the Cal-Diego Chapter, PVA, a national organization that provides advocacy, outreach and services for disabled veterans with spinal cord injuries or illnesses causing paralysis. The group’s office is located in the Spinal Cord Injury Building of the VA Hospital in La Jolla, where they can be close to the people they serve.

Ballantyne is a strong believer in the potential of water sports and other activities to transform lives, particularly those whose futures were upended by spinal cord injuries. Their website (caldiegopva.org) contains videos testifying to the restorative benefits of their programs, which are geared to people with widely varying levels of physical abilities.

“The idea of what we do is programs. We want to show the newly injured what’s available, so they can gain confidence and friends along with the certain dignity of doing things themselves. We hope they’ll then do things on their own. We can facilitate days on the water, including sailing and sportfishing,” he explained, adding that they also offer adaptive surfing and scuba.

All their programs, which extend to land-based activities including adaptive fencing, bowling, auto racing, radio-controlled cars, planes and quadcopters, archery, art and music, are free, thanks to generous charitable support and grants. While they work primarily with veterans, their activities are community-based.

“We try to be as inclusive as possible. We work with anybody,” he said.

While Cal-Diego PVA’s programs are San Diego-based, the Long Beach PVA chapter shares in or piggybacks on some of their activities.

Like most nonprofits, with a small staff Cal-Diego depends on volunteers to ensure its success. For information on volunteering, visit their website or call 1-800-423-2778.

 

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