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Commentary: Grateful to be involved with disability programs

The RTI-Wheelin' Wildcats wheelchair basketball team poses for a group photo.

Vernon L. Burgess, Jr. (center), poses in a blue shirt with his RTI-Wheelin' Wildcats teammates. The team is a National Wheelchair Basketball Association Division III wheelchair basketball team based in Ogden, Utah, and made up of athletes from surrounding communities. (Courtesy photo)

Editor’s note: Hill Air Force Base celebrates National Disability Employment Awareness Month with a series of special events each year that culminate with a wheelchair basketball exhibition game between base leadership and the RTI-Wheelin’ Wildcats wheelchair basketball team. Regrettably, this year’s events were canceled out of an abundance of caution due to COVID-19. Vernon Burgess, the recreation coordinator for the team, was asked by Team Hill’s Special Observance Committee to share some of his thoughts about NDEAM.

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah -- At 70 years old now, I tend to look back at the decisions that led my life down a different path.

On Feb. 8, 1969, my two buddies and I went off to a driving range to celebrate being called up for the draft. After numerous large buckets of golf balls and an enduring celebration, I woke up the next morning a T-9 paraplegic.

This turned out to be one of the most fortunate things to ever happen to me, although it took 10 years to realize my new purpose in life.

I was a very angry, disgruntled, and ornery. That is until 1979 when I was asked to go watch a bikini contest at Weber State…my sister lied! Instead, it was a wheelchair basketball exhibition game with some volunteer students.

It was then I met some of the team who changed my life.

Today, I am honored to have met Nick, Jim, Vance, Bobby, Chris, Matt, Nathan, Jayden, Doyle, Orville, Travis, Ryan, the athletes who currently make up our RTI- Wheelin’ Wildcats team.

Of course, we couldn’t do what we do without the help of coaching staff Sandy Bebout and Mindy Smith, and the Roads to Independence, Adaptive Recreation, and Mindful Mobility programs.

Another positive influence on disability programs is Hill Air Force Base.

The base goes out of the way to honor many diversity programs including Wheels of Wonder and, of course, the annual wheelchair basketball exhibition game and half time show. These events showcase the abilities of individuals with disabilities during the National Disabilities Employment Awareness Month.

Thank you, Hill AFB! I’m honored to be involved with individuals with disabilities.