I met a young man called Kenny this weekend. He’s wheelchair bound because he was born with Muscular Dystrophy. His brother has the same disease. They don’t live together, nor do they see one another very often. Kenny’s mother has her own life, and his father is nowhere to be found. Kenny though has aim in his life. He insists on being independent.
When I was asked to go and meet Kenny, he had been singled out as having a huge talent in the sport of power soccer. Power soccer is played in electric-powered chairs that are piloted or driven by some very determined and capable athletes. It’s a hugely popular and up and coming sport for those who are wheelchair bound, and not only is it played at inter league level all across the USA, it’s an Olympic sport too. Kenny, just like most of the athletes around the bay area, is living his life around his soccer dreams. He takes three busses to get to practice, which is held twice a week about 10 miles away from where he lives. He does this in his electric wheelchair, receiving assistance to get on and off each time he changes busses, a process which takes him 2 hours to complete from door to door. Once he’s finished with practice, normally late into the evening, he repeats this process, going in the opposite direction to get home. Kenny was doing the same thing to get to his job at Safeway, again, 3 bus journeys too and from work. Unfortunately for Kenny, the busses often ran late and after a year of excuses, Safeway fired him a few weeks ago because they failed to understand why public transportation should be held responsible for Kenny’s tardiness. Understandable really if you’re Mr. Safeway, incomprehensible though if you’re Kenny in a wheelchair.
Kenny lives in low-income housing, near a large outdoor shopping mall in San Jose, but to date, has failed to regain employment because the companies hiring around his home are not as open as Safeway were to employing men and women who have the range of disability that Kenny endures. Very unfortunate, when you think we live in a society that treats employment opportunity as an equal right in most cases. And so, Kenny lives on $10,000 per year, (yes, you read that correctly,10 grand a year!), which he receives in benefits from the State of CA. I have no idea how he survives, but he finds a way to make it happen, eating perhaps only once a day, or not eating at all on other days. He has no TV, no luxuries whatsoever and, as I mentioned earlier, his only passion is his power soccer. He lives it, breathes it and dreams it.
After talking with Kenny and another gentleman called John, I was informed that the game of power soccer has evolved into something of a Grand Prix race. It used to be that Kenny, along with everyone else playing this sport, could do so in the chair they used in their everyday lives. That chair costs about $25,000, (yes, again, you read that correctly!), the main expense being the motors that power the wheels and the electronics that drive the intelligence required to steer the chair. I had a hard time believing all of this when I saw how basic this chair seemed to be, but these are facts, not fiction. With the advancement of technology in both alloys and electronics, a company in Minnesota has now developed a power soccer chair that can not only out think, out maneuver and out power regular chairs, it is also safer and more efficient and an absolute MUST if you want to progress to Olympic level in this sport. The catch?? It costs $8700! A fortune for anyone, let alone a disabled athlete who has already spent 25 grand just to live a normal kind of life and would like the luxury of this soccer chair just to play a game!
Kenny and John are trying to raise funds for their organization to buy the new power chairs, which would enable players on their team to compete with teams from rest of the country who are already using these machines. With some effort, I believe they will be successful in their plight to compete and eventually John hopes that he will manage to raise enough to purchase a total of 4 chairs, which would ‘arm’ his team with the weapons they require to take a run at the national championships. I have placed a link below to the only manufacturer of these chairs in the USA. If you go to that link you’ll see just how expensive a hobby playing power soccer can be, but if you also take a moment to realize that this game is all these athletes have to try to help them live some kind of normal life, then perhaps you’ll understand just how important it is to them to make this happen. Kenny, after all, will continue to take his three busses there and back, with or without this incredible chair, because he loves the sport. But just how long will John be able to keep his team running if he’s unable to put out a team that can compete? If the team crumbles, what kind of existence will Kenny have? I dread to think. It’s already a lifestyle that sends shivers from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet and I really can’t understand how he survives the way he does.
The meeting gave me a brand new appreciation of ‘living to make ends meet’, and I for one am going to try to support Kenny and his teammates as best I can in the coming months. If you think you might also be interested in helping out, please go to fwwaa.org, and donate. Every cent will help propel an athlete towards their dreams.