In 2014, when John Butler was turning 14, his father, Bill Butler, looked for an activity they could do together. Bill had coached John in Upward basketball, but the youth had aged out of the program. While it might have seemed natural for the father-son duo to join a rec basketball league, they had one important consideration: Bill is a disabled veteran with mobility challenges. An athletic activity involving running and jumping was out.
Kayaking seemed like a possibility, however, so Bill launched his computer's search engine. He discovered the Southeast Pennsylvania chapter of Team River Runner (TRR), and he also discovered more than just kayaking. TRR is a nationwide nonprofit organization with more than 50 chapters. Through kayaking and canoeing, the organization offers health and healing for disabled veterans, nondisabled veterans and active-duty military personnel, disabled members of the community, and nonveteran volunteers.
Bill and John participated in the Southeast Pennsylvania chapter for a year, during which Bill was trained as an instructor certified by the American Canoe Association. He was then tapped by the organization's executive director to start a chapter, and the Susquehanna Valley chapter was born. Bill recruited his friend and fellow Army veteran Roy Hargrove to serve as the chapter's secretary.
"We offer camaraderie with people who have 'been there,' and we see the kids having fun together," said Sue Schaffer, outreach coordinator for the Susquehanna Valley chapter of TRR.
In the chapter's two years, participation has reached 165 people, a portion of whom are blind or have vision impairments. Jennifer Eaton, who works with young clients at VisionCorps and has low vision herself, contacted Bill in hopes that he would lead a kayak trip on the Conestoga River for Camp Cool, VisionCorps' summer camp. Instead, Bill taught the campers how to kayak, and Eaton became an avid paddler.
"I got hooked," Eaton said. "I've got the whole gear, and I'm a Level II instructor." Eaton created the Kids Are OuttaSight! (KAOS!) program, which has been implemented in TRR chapters across the country, and she now serves as the national director for the program.
TRR specializes in adapting equipment and procedures according to participants' abilities. That might involve securing a palsied hand to a paddle mounted on a pivot or using a kayak with a transfer board. It also takes the form of sighted guides providing verbal cues to paddlers so they can navigate safely downstream.
"Water is a great equalizer," Bill explained, noting that with the right equipment and proper training, practically anyone can enjoy kayaking or canoeing.
"We are a judgment-free zone from the disability perspective," Eaton said. "We're equals."
There is plenty of ribbing about military branches, however, and that just adds to the fun, Hargrove commented. TRR grew out of a physical therapy program at Walter Reed Military Hospital, and its primary participants are disabled veterans. TRR continues as a nontraditional recreational therapy program.
"We see vets for whom this world makes no sense to them, so we do a river run like we're doing a mission," Bill said. "I have done more than one PTSD counseling session downstream of the rapids."
The Susquehanna Valley chapter hosts training sessions in Millersville University's Pucillo Gymnasium during the fall and winter, and it hosts outdoor paddling at York County's Lake Williams and on other area waterways in the summer and when the weather otherwise permits. There is no charge to participate, as the organization operates through grants from the Department of Veterans Affairs and private contributions. Information about participation and making donations may be found at https://svtrr.org, and folks may contact Bill at 717-951-8948 or Bill.Butler@TeamRiverRunner.org for more information.