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!
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
In 2020 TRR added a new National Paddling Clinic-Mexico whitewater kayaking. This clinic is due to TRR’s close relationship with Calleva Outdoors. Veterans from all Chapters who build class 3 whitewater paddling skills can apply to this winter (January) week long paddling clinic. Partnering with Calleva in the DC/MD/VA area has helped increase paddling opportunities, and adding their Mexico Paddling program is a great addition to the TRR National Programs offerings.
Kayaks, outriggers, paddles and adaptive paddles, universal padding seats and personal flotation devices will be provided. Participants should bring swimsuits and towels; goggles, nose plugs and water socks or shoes are optional.”
“As he’s being loaded into a kayak in the Eastern Washington University pool one evening, George Davis says he’s actually a pretty good kayaker, except for one thing.
“I just can’t see where I’m going,” said Davis, a Navy veteran who started losing his sight at age 30 and was completely blind by 50. “But no problem.”
Davis is a regular at the weekly Team River Runner kayaking event where therapeutic recreation students Kristen Eissman and Austin Kapalo help veterans learn to kayak in a way that meets their physical and mental health needs.”
Please check out all the safety resources available to you to make sure that you are keeping you and your chapter members safe on the water!
These documents have been written and provided by Team River Runner Safety Coordinator – Charlie Duffy.
Proper Glove Removal
Sam Splint Intro and How To Use
“Kathy Champion’s last name couldn’t be more appropriate, because she is a champion, a champion for courage.
“Once you get over the fear of being blind you can begin and live again,” said Champion.”
Lake Berryessa, California
September 18 – 22, 2019
Picture this: a 70-foot luxury houseboat moored in a secluded cove on a warm lake as the base of operations for the First Western Outtasight Clinic, where 4 veterans with visual impairments would learn kayaking skills and nine vets or volunteers would learn to guide the visually impaired. It was a perfect plan at a perfect place with perfect conditions: 79-degree, crystal-clear weather and water on Lake Berryessa in California.
No plan is perfect, of course, and we were reminded of this as the advance party discovered that a fallen tree had blocked the road into Pleasure Cove Marina, where we would camp overnight before transferring to our houseboat. It took 2.5 hours before the fire and utility crews cleaned up the mess.
Once camp was set up, we gathered for dinner, introductions, and orientation, and after a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast, we transferred people, food and gear to our houseboat. Once aboard, we motored out to our instruction site in Haines Cove, where we moored the boat to an island and set up for three days and two nights of instruction and fun.
The guidance was provided by Chris Farris, event organizer, and American River Chapter Co-Coordinator, and Carlisle Landel, Co-Coordinator of the Palo Alto River Chapter, both of whom had been certified at last June’s TRR Adaptive Paddling Conference, with additional help and oversight from Jennifer Eaton from Kids Are Outta Sight and TRR National. The participants, who came from Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, and California, included both visually impaired paddlers and their accompanying but untrained family members as well as experienced whitewater and sea kayak instructors who needed to learn techniques for teaching and guiding this population.
And learn we all did, starting with the basics, progressing to a double-circumnavigation of our island (2 miles total) and culminating in 5-mile paddle back to the marina from our mooring site on the last day. But paddling and instruction was not the only thing on the schedule by a long shot—not when you have a luxury houseboat complete with water slide and hot tub. In addition, excellent meals were prepared and enjoyed, new boats were dedicated, and a raffle was held. As a special bonus, Park Ranger Jennifer Onufer came to the boat and gave a presentation on the natural history of the lake and its locale with her collection of fossils, plants, pelts and other specimens that could be passed about and shared even with the visually impaired while a member of the Bureau of Reclamation public relations staff shot documentary photographs and interviewed our participants.
By Saturday morning, everyone had advanced their skills to the point where the paddle back to the marina on the final morning was well within the capability, and we had a leisurely trip back in the morning sun. After unloading the boat we returned to our camp for a huge catered meal and our final closing ceremonies.
Special thanks are due to:
- Melissa Farris for organizing the food and menu and for holding down the campsite while we were on the boat.
- The staff of Pleasure Cove Marina, who towed our string of sea kayaks to the mooring site and provided water taxi service between the marina and our mooring.
- Guy Cables, owner, and operator of Sierra Outdoor Center of Auburn, for the donation of raffle items and his continued support of TRR American River.
- TRR National, both for its support of the clinic and for its OJT program, which provided the training that made organizing this event possible.