The United States Adaptive Recreation Center has taken over Marine Stadium for a weekend of aquatic activities every summer for more than a decade.
However, the unique event that’s part of Casa Colina’s Land Meets Sea Sports Camp is now just another helpful local program that has been canceled due to COVID-19 concerns.
“There’s a lot of people out there who are probably pretty bummed,” USARC Operation/Outreach Coordinator Sara Rosell said. “We’ve tried to do Zoom calls with participants and volunteers to let everyone know we’re still here.”
USARC was founded in 1983 and the charitable organization is based in Big Bear where they teach participants with physical and mental disabilities how to ski and snowboard. Additionally, the three-day annual event in Long Beach allows them to take part in other therapeutic outdoor activities including jet skiing, water skiing and tennis.
“I’m missing it as much as everyone else,” USARC staff instructor Emily Hammond said. “I think our program is so important for the population that we serve. It gives them something fun with a sense of accomplishment… things they never thought they could do. A lot of us are really missing it and really disappointed that we can’t be there this year.”
The timing couldn’t be worse for USARC as they deal with the shutdown while also entering a time of transition. Longtime director Tom Pierce has retired, and that’s left USARC without defined leadership in an already uncertain situation.
“Right now we’re just trying to kind of see how we can make the program bigger and greater than it already is,” Rosell said. “We need to get more participants and volunteers to see how we can up our resources. But obviously everything is up in the air right now.”
Rosell, 37, who said she’s interested in taking over the director duties, took it upon herself to move the USARC base of operations to her house in Big Bear when Bear Mountain was closed. They’re taking the time to refurbish their offices at the ski slope, but they don’t know when they’ll be able to get back to offering events.
Both Rosell and Hammond majored in Recreational Therapy at Long Beach State before finding USARC as a perfect place to be a student intern. Rosell also worked with a therapeutic horseback riding program while growing up in Orange County, and Hammond got her start with Ability First in Long Beach.
“I love USARC,” Hammond said. “As soon as you get there you just feel like you’re in a little family environment where everybody is looking out for you. We get really close, because of all the time we spend together, especially in the summer program.”
Hammond said she can’t wait to get back to work with USARC because of the joy it brings the participants.
“The profession is just very rewarding,” Hammond said. “We work with such a variety of people and disabilities. So, we get so much satisfaction from pretty much anything … a smile or if they can clap … it’s just incredible. It’s those little things like laughter or smiles that really make it worth it for me.”
When she joined USARC a couple years ago, Hammond had a life changing experience with one of her first students, Avi, who was 14 years old and completely blind.
“It was his first time ever skiing,” Hammond said. “He was a little nervous and it was one of my first visual impairment lessons… but it was just such a great day because he was trying so hard to listen to everything I had to say. I was able to get him down the hill. He was literally just skiing by the cues of my voice. It was incredible.”
Rosell, Hammond and the other instructors all agree that USARC isn’t all fun and games because many of these activities can be dangerous. For example, in Long Beach while water skiing a staff member will sit on the back of a jet ski that follows participants on a modified single water ski with a chair on top. When they fall, the instructor has to quickly jump off and get their head above water or they’ll drown.
“Something could go wrong so easily and so quickly and we have to always be on guard,” Hammond said. “We’re always trying to think of safety first and just try to always be on top of it.”
“It’s tiring and it takes a lot of patience but it’s so worth it,” USARC board member Windy Sirignano said. “The look in their eyes is pure joy. And it puts your own life in perspective when you see what these people have been through and what they can accomplish.”
California native Jim Masters was one of the participants who came to Long Beach every year for the USARC event. He was in a motorcycle crash in 1996 that put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. But the Casa Colina’s Land Meets Sea Sports Camp put that chair behind a powerboat once a year.
“I’m an adrenaline junkie,” Masters said. “I’m always seeking a rush. My year wouldn’t be the same without it. It’s a family out here. It’s so awesome to see the kids out here especially. They’re doing things people told them they’d never be able to do.”