Key Largo Clinic & BLESMA Collaborative Event

From March 1-7, 2020, the warm weather and welcoming community of Key Largo hosted six veterans with visual impairment and their guides for another fantastic OuttaSight program.  This program became exclusively an OuttaSight program a few years ago, and with the financial assistance of the Blind Veterans of America’s Peer Support Program, has focused on training veterans with visual impairments (VI) as well as training veterans and volunteers to be VI guides. 

This year, we had a mix of experienced and inexperienced paddlers and guides, and the teaching and learning was a two-way street.   Jen Eaton was our VI and mobility instructor, although Brian Harris reversed the roles when it came to whitewater roll instruction in the pool.  In addition to guide training on and off the water, our team paddled Blackwater Sound, Dusenberry Creek, Garden Cove, and the always challenging mangrove trails at John Pennekamp State Park. 

We threw in a therapeutic swim with dolphins at Island Dolphin Care and a mandatory visit to Shell World for the required souvenir shopping.  And if that wasn’t enough, the little bit of time we had remaining was quickly filled up with daily yoga sessions, pool sessions, and guitar lessons. 

Brian Harris was our veteran OuttaSight paddler, and was joined by Don Bickham, Braian DeJesus, Hugo Gonzalez, Hugo Perez, and Raquel Welch.  Guides included Colin Drew, Jen Eaton, Mark Fratoni, Celiann Gonzalez, Deborah Reyes, and Steve Wade.  Our local guide and tide reader, Jamie Jackson, was indispensable as always.

This event would not be the same without the support of our Key Largo friends and partners.  Amoray Resort once again graciously hosted us, Florida Bay Outfitters generously provided our boats and trailer, and Island Dolphin Care provided our memorable therapeutic swim with the dolphins.  The Elks Club and VFW Post 333 fed us and entertained us.  Thanks also to Sean Hannan from Veterans Get Guitars for the donation of his time and guitars for all of our veterans, and all the local residents who generously feed us every year!

 Photo of participants L to R: Raquel, Hugo, Braian, Carlos, Brian, and Don.

Photo of group – front L to R: Celiann, Colin, Braian, Deborah
back L to R: Mark, Carlos, Raquel, Don, Hugo, Brian, Jen, Steve, Jamie

Testimonial from Carlos Pere’- President FRG – BVA

I would like to thank Team River Runner and Jamie Jackson for providing an AWESOME experience at the March Key Largo kayak clinic. I now think of kayaking in a different and exciting way, I am currently looking for kayaks for the entire family, as well looking to volunteer and promote a new TRR local charter in Tampa Bay. Kayaking is a sport we can all easily practice physical distancing and have fun as long as good judgement and safety is applied. It was great to partake in this experience with other fellow Blinded Veterans and watch there confidence grow. By the way I’m determined to perfect my hip snap and roll! I recommend others to try it and you’ll be surprised on your outlook and results, thank you for volunteering your time and much love to the team!!

Excerpt from an article with Brian Harris’ input

“The BVA/Operation peer support collaborated with Team River Runner for a week of kayaking,fellowship,and mentoring with others. The following BVA members attended the event, Hugo Gonzalez, Raquel Welch, Don Bickham, Carlos Pedre, and team leader Brian Harris.

The event was held in South Florida on the beautiful shores of Key Largo and its crystal blue Waters. The group stayed at the Amoray Hotel, which was foot steps away from the crystal clear waters of the Florida keys On the third day of kayaking, the veterans were introduced to Sean.

Sean started a foundation called Guitars for Heroes. He started raising money to purchase guitars for veterans and provide them with a basic lesson before gifting the guitar to the them. The vets were so impressed by his offer, the entire group was enthusiastic and eager to learn the lesson. After teaching them how to tune the guitar and explain to them keys and chords, the vets practiced 1 hour each day. On the last day of the event, all team members were presented with a guitar of their own.

The veterans were given an opportunity to swim with dolphins. The veterans were paired with their guide and a certified dolphin trainer to do tricks with the dolphins and to free swim. “This event was so amazing, “ says Raquel. The veterans were treated as guests of honor-at the American Legion and the Elks club in Key Largo. The people of the community came out and thanked the veterans for their service and sacrifices. Hugo Gonzalez stated, “ It’s events like these that makes me feel like I am not alone, that I have a-brotherhood.” On the last day, 3 individuals were presented with BVA coins by Brian Harris. The first coin was given to Jaime Jackson, for his knowledge and expert navigating through the Florida mangroves and seas. The second coin was presented to Sean for blessing the veterans with the guitars and lessons. The last coin went to Jennifer Eaton for being the only visually impaired mobility instructor to come down from Pennsylvania to assist with mentoring, kayaking and help guiding other visually impaired vets. In my opinion, it is events like these that challenges vets to step outside their comfort zones and to see the progress they’ve made at the end of the event.”

Testimonial from Hugo Gonzalez

I got to meet and make new friends, brothers in arms, which I share so much more than just a joint service. We all share the love for our nation and our armed forces, and because of  it we related immediately to each other in many ways. But beyond that, all the participants shared one more commonality- we were all legally blind veterans.

The guides were at all times adapting every situation and he resources around our particular war injury. Overall, it was 8 days of adventure that addressed for each one of us a specific challenge intrinsic and unique to each of us. But this experience wouldn’t have been possible without the security, the trust and connection that our instructors were able to build in all of us