Story: Chris Carr
Photo: David Creighton
Nearly 300 people spent this past Saturday at the Virginia G. Piper Sports & Fitness Center for Persons with Disabilities (SpoFit) to celebrate, recognize and support military veterans at the Saluting Service Resource Fair.
Various organizations, including the Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.), Wounded Warrior Project and the Pat Tillman Foundation were on hand to provide information about everything from career placement services to assistance with readjusting to civilian life. In total, forty companies and organizations were set up on SpoFit’s basketball courts for the event.
ABIL President and CEO Phil Pangrazio welcomed guests to begin the afternoon. Retired Navy Rear Admiral William Putnam also addressed the crowd during the opening ceremony. Putnam served in Lebanon, the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan during a 34-year career, between 1966 and 2000. He spoke to SpoFit’s impact in the greater Phoenix community.
“In its first year-plus, SpoFit has seen a fulfillment of its mission to provide exceptional active sport, recreation, aquatic and fitness programs promoting the independence, health and overall well-being for people with disabilities and their family members,” Putnam said.
The event was also about promoting SpoFit’s benefits for military veterans. Prior to the event, many vets were not fully aware that they are eligible for free SpoFit memberships, but by the end of the night, 51 new members were added to the SpoFit community.
Along with the V.A., the Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES) was on hand to share information about its career services program geared toward veterans.
Matt Bernard, a representative for DES South Phoenix, said that his organization works with service members of all kinds, many of whom have been separated from military duty for up to ten years. Over the course of his time with DES, Bernard has seen an increase in the number of veterans employed by certain companies, and he says the informal networks that are now in place for this community are helpful.
“More employers now – especially the larger employers – they realize they have veterans already on their staff,” Bernard said. “So, if [newly hired vets] have a question about ‘how do we fit into the workplace? What’s the normal procedure for something?’ they have somebody they can go to.”
In addition to the numerous vendors in attendance on Saturday, the Phoenix Fusion wheelchair rugby team and the Banner Wheelchair Suns basketball team treated guests to sports demonstrations. Later in the day, adults and kids had the chance to ride handcycles and guests showed off their musical skills during a drum circle activity. SpoFit’s pool was also full during SCUBA and kayaking demonstrations.
Vets on Media, a locally based outlet with a slate of radio shows covering veteran and civilian-related issues set up a mobile studio in the atrium. Co-owners Adam Bird and James Fawbush, and show host Christina Wagner interviewed people throughout the day, including SpoFit manager, Amber Blanchard.
Fawbush and Bird agreed that the Saluting Service event was an opportunity they did not want to miss because of their connection to SpoFit and ABIL.
“It wouldn’t have mattered if it was a veteran [event] or not, because I feel comfortable here. I love the people here and I believe in what they’re doing,” Fawbush said. “Talking with some of the volunteers, I told them that if I wasn’t into broadcasting… I could see myself working here.”
Wagner said that while the assumed primary audience for Vets on Media content might be people with military backgrounds, the station has something for everyone. She said they offer a clear perspective about issues of concern to both military veterans and civilians, more so than other outlets in many ways.
“The media isn’t doing a very good job of sharing with people the fact that we are actually at war. They’re not doing a good job of sharing with people the picture of what’s going on,” she said.
Perhaps the most exciting part of the evening came as the winner of the “Gorilla Grand,” a $1,000 raffle prize from event sponsor Gorilla Capital, was announced. Esau Williams of Goodyear, Arizona. The Navy veteran was one of the first to arrive and stuck around long enough to take home the big check.
But it didn’t stay with him for long. Instead of using the money for personal expenses or fun purchases, Williams invested it back into his community. On Monday, he donated $500 to a senior citizen community center in the Valley and gave the other half to SpoFit to cover membership costs for other veterans.
Williams was excited to hear his name called on Saturday night, telling the SpoFit staff, “The only thing I want is the big check so I can drive around and show all my neighbors I won. I invited them all to come and now I got to show them what they missed.”
For more information about upcoming programs and membership options, call SpoFit at (602) 386-4566 or visit www.ability360.org/sports.