‘This is family here’
Hannah Martinez takes pride in showing others all that she can do.
The 15-year-old who will be a junior at Pioneer Valley High School this fall has been coming to the Junior Wheelchair Sports Camp for the past 10 years. If it’s up to her, she’ll be involved for a whole lot longer than that.
“After I’m done being a camper, I want to come back and be a counselor,” she told the News-Press. “That’s something I’ve always wanted to do – inspire young kids who are just like me and make them feel included and make them feel like they have a place.”
Hannah was one of many campers taking part in the annual games. She suffers from cerebral palsy, but that hasn’t stopped her from competing in as many events as she can.
When asked her favorite activity, she didn’t hesitate – “Swimming,” she said with a smile.
“This is my swim time,” she said. “And this camp is like my home away from home.”
Hannah can still remember her first camp – she felt nervous until she met a group of people that helped her feel more comfortable.
“This is family here, it’s not just friends,” she said. “It’s really nice to come back and see the same faces every year.
“Growing up, I remember I wasn’t really included in stuff and coming here, you’re in everything.”
Hannah said the counselors have inspired her to keep pushing herself to display all that she can do – rather than focusing on what she can’t.
“It’s really amazing because you look at their faces and their like ‘wow,’ but then you look at yourself and think ‘I know how to do that,” she said.
The annual camp put on by the Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation provides sports and recreation skills development for children, youth and young adults between the ages of 6 and 19 who can use a wheelchair to participate in activities. More than 40 campers took part in this year’s event held at UCSB. They were joined by more than 70 volunteers – some of whom who also use a wheelchair to get around.
“It’s impossible not to come back,” said Hannah Roodenrijis, 23, who has been volunteering for the past 10 years. “It’s just so much fun and it’s really cool to be able to watch these kids grow up and progress on their skills every year.”
The campers are split into five teams among their age level. Every hour they move on to a different sport, competing in activities like tennis, basketball, hand cycling, power soccer, ropes courses, obstacle courses and more.
All of the campers suffer from some sort of physical disability. Some are able to walk on their own, while others use power or manual wheelchairs. For each of the sports, the athletes are on wheelchairs to level the playing field.
Rene Van Hoorn, a recreation therapist at Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital, has been the director for the event for the past 12 years. She hopes the camp provides a better quality of life for the campers.
“I want everyone to have a ‘who you are,'” she said. “They might look different, but innately, the way we find our people in the world is by – ‘oh you like dance? I love to dance’ or ‘or you like those kind of moves? Me too’ – it doesn’t matter if you have red hair, black hair; use a wheelchair or can walk. My passion is truly that if the world was just a little more open and accepting it would be so much easier.”
Uly Arreola, 15, of Oxnard, has been coming to the camp for the past five years. He said he enjoys competing in events like rugby and power soccer.
“You don’t feel like the odd one out, you feel normal,” he said.
As Wednesday’s activities came to a close, the group of campers and volunteers gathered on the Multi-Activity Court at the UCSB Recreation Center for a rugby showdown with a group of six Santa Barbara County firefighters.
As the firefighters entered the gym, the campers began to chant “I Believe That We Will Win,” perhaps foreshadowing the outcome of the game.
It looked as though the firefighters were about to take an early lead, before one of the campers stole the ball and wheeled down the court for the game’s first point.
The campers were a cohesive group, as some were simply there to block the opposition and others ran free to try and score. While the campers took an early lead, the final score was the last thing on anybody’s mind.
“We had fun, and I think they had fun so that’s really all that matters,” said Capt. Brian Fernandez, who was the captain for the firefighters out of Station No. 17.
“It was very humbling,” he said. “I think they definitely had the home court advantage. It was a little rough for us… They were fast on those things.”
Elena Pomposo, 14, was one of the campers who helped give her team the commanding lead.
“It’s exhilarating,” she said. “Those firemen think they’re hot stuff but we showed ’em. They tried to swipe it from my lab, but I’m like ‘nah, buddy.'”
Elena has participated in the camp five times previously. She said it has taught her how to adapt – not just in sports but in life.
The Ventura resident was nothing but smiles after scoring the goal.
“It makes you feel like you’re the hero,” she said.
While Elena was elated to score on the first responders – they were also glad to share the court with the campers.
“To see them out here playing and doing this – they’re our heroes,” Capt. Fernandez said. “To see somebody overcome that challenge and to persevere – it’s really a special experience.”