Shared from the 8/8/2019 The Virginian-Pilot eEdition

USA PATRIOTS

‘They’re not being singled out. They’re among their own.’

Softball team of amputee military members inspires kids who are also without limbs

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Ohio’s Jemma Filbrun, 12, makes contact during batting practice at the seventh annual Kids Camp.

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SARAH HOLM PHOTOS/STAFF

Minnesota’s Landon Uthke, 11, hits the ball in batting practice during the seventh annual Kids Camp, hosted by the USA Patriots amputee softball team at Virginia Wesleyan.

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SARAH HOLM/STAFF

Dan Lopez, from Williamsburg, coaches Kaylynn McSmith, 11, from Nevada, on how to catch a ball during the seventh annual Kids Camp on Aug. 1. The team flew in 17 kids, ages 8-12, with amputations to learn softball.

VIRGINIA BEACH — If you ask the USA Patriots about the reasoning behind their Kids Camp, they’ll talk about representation. From executive director to assistant coach to player, everyone has a story about how their charity team of amputee military members, which travels the country playing softball against able-bodied teams, has impacted the lives of children who also have amputations or loss of limbs.

Heather Carter has watchedkidsfromacrossthe country go from complete strangers to close friends in less than a week. Dan Lopez remembered the time a camper with an arm amputation didn’t want to wear a short-sleeved shirt. A few years later, she confidently wore a spaghetti-strap dress to her prom.

And Desiree Ellison smiled when recalling a Patriots team trip to Ohio. After watching a game, one boy with an amputation decided to dress up as Saul Monroy, a Patriots player, for Halloween. It was the first time the boy had ever seen an adult that was just like him.

“This week, for the kids, is all about them not being singled out,” Lopez said. “When they’re here, able-bodied people are the odd ones out. I hope it gives (the kids) a sense of calmness because they’re not the odd one out. They’re not being stared at. They’re not being singled out. They’re among their own.”

That was the case last week at Virginia Wesleyan University, where the Patriots hosted their seventh annual Kids Camp. The Norfolk-based organization, a 501(c)(3) public charity formerly known as the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team, paid for 17 kids from ages 8 to 12 to attend along with one parent/guardian each.

The campers spent the week with 15 Patriots. Some are veterans and some are active duty, but they’re all adults with amputations. On a standard day, the group did softball drills for three hours in the morning. Afternoons were reserved for meals and free time, in the form of ping pong, swimming and, late in the week, a karaoke rendition of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.” The campers also spent the night in VWU dorms.

“When I got there, I said I’m going to college at the age of 10,” joked camper Nolan Edwards, a rising fourth-grader and “Fortnite” enthusiast from Indianapolis.

Ellison, the team’s executive director, said the annual camp costs about $180,000. The Patriots pay for everything: lodging, expenses, meals, flights. VWU donated its dorms to the camp this year.

The Patriots usually host 20 campers, but they had a few late dropouts this year.

To date,137 children with amputations have attended. There’s also a smaller Alumni Camp — it’s a closely knit community, and most kids who go want to come back, Ellison said.

That’s the case for Isaac Armstead, a 17-year-old from Virginia Beach. He went to the Patriots’ 2014 Kids Camp in Tennessee and has stayed in touch with the organization ever since. This year, he served as a quasi-assistant coach for a Kids Camp that took place, conveniently, in his own backyard. Once he turns 18, he may join the team on tour.

“When I see the kids play, it takes my mind back,” Armstead said. “I’m like, ‘Whoa, I was right there in that situation.’ And now I’m here, teaching how to get through that exact situation. It’s cool. It’s really cool.”

Last Friday, the group rotated through hitting, catching and fielding drills at TowneBank Park, Virginia Wesleyan’s new softball stadium. Parents and siblings watched from the bleachers as campers prepared for their Saturday scrimmage.

As the Patriots coached, they also observed. Carter, a 33-year-old Air Force veteran from Newport News, said there’s plenty to learn. Most of the campers have lived their entire lives with disabilities. Most of the Patriots have not.

Thus, the kids’ approaches to different tasks and movements are intriguing to someone like Carter, who has been a left-leg, above-the-knee amputee for about three years.

“Like teaching old dogs new tricks,” said Carter, an assistant coach for the Patriots and former softball player at Barton College. “I’ve actually watched some of the kids run, throw, how they get rid of the glove if they have one hand.”

As Carter supervised a throwing session near third base, Lopez was in the outfield with another group. The 40-year-old father of four from Williamsburg said the Patriots have been a “godsend” for him. Like many of his teammates, he missed the camaraderie of military service when he retired from the Army in 2012. After bumping into a Patriots rep at an Army West Point soccer match, he’s been with the team five years.

“To be able to come out here and do something we love, that I love, and be around kids and be around veterans who understand 99 percent of what I’m saying or going through, it’s just a perfect package for me,” said Lopez, a right-leg, above-the-knee amputee. “It really changed my life.”

From the Monday night introductory dinner to Saturday’s scrimmage, Lopez said the Patriots kept emphasizing their motto: “Life without a limb is limitless.” Armstead saw it firsthand when the campers were on a ropes course midweek. A few were worried they couldn’t make it past a certain obstacle.

“No, ‘can’t’ isn’t a word,” a Patriot reminded them. “You can do it.”

Chapel Fowler, chapel.fowler@pilotonline.com,

@chapelfowler

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