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Wounded Warrior Program Provides Therapy Through Kayaking

Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
West Virginia Public Broadcasting

There are many organizations and programs across the country that seek to help wounded veterans. Some of those programs, like the Wounded Warrior Project, have received criticism recently from media outlets like the Daily Beast and Veterans Today, questioning the program’s agenda. But a program at Shepherd University that’s in partnership with the Wounded Warrior Project seems to be thriving.

For two hours on Wednesday evenings, a handful of volunteers and veterans show up at the swimming pool at the Wellness Center on Shepherd University’s campus.

This is the Shepherd University chapter of Team River Runner, and it’s currently finishing up its second year. Team River Runner is a non-profit organization that serves wounded veterans through therapeutic kayaking. There are around 40 chapters across the country, but only 4 of them are hosted by universities. Shepherd is the only chapter in West Virginia.

“The main thing for me is just the attractiveness of the kayaking combined with the people here at Team River Runner-Shepherd,” said Chris Price, an Air Force veteran who served from 2000 to 2012. He got involved with Team River Runner to get help with his PTSD and substance abuse.

“For me to get out into the community, not isolate, to engage with and communicate with fellow veterans in a fun atmosphere, it’s really positively affected by recovery, and so for me it was huge,” Price remembered.

Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Price enjoyed the sessions so much as a participant that he decided to come back as a volunteer; helping other wounded veterans gain back a sense of stability.

“They’re just really a great bunch," said Price, "they’re inspirational, I like to incorporate them into my life as mentors. Some of them are really into the kayaking like whitewater-wise and they can roll and do tricks and all this cool stuff that’s appealing in one aspect, but the other is that they’re just good people that I, you know, want to surround myself with.”

Tracy Seffers is the Shepherd chapter’s coordinator and the registrar of the university. She says the work she does with Team River Runner is the best she’s ever done.

“We never quite know from one week to the next who’s going to be coming in through that door," said Seffers, "but there’s something wonderful that happens in the water that just meets the veterans where they are, and our volunteer community is so wonderful and patient to listen to the veterans and observe carefully and meet that need whatever it is.”

Each session is instructed by a certified kayaker, and all participants and volunteers must go through a training period in the pool before they can go out on the river. The equipment and training space the chapter uses is gifted through the university and from the community. It’s also free for a veteran to participate.

“Our main goal is ‘butts in boats,’" said Seffers, "If you show up, and you’re a veteran, we’ll have a boat for you, and so that’s our promise always to the veterans.”

Transitioning from military to civilian life can be a big challenge for some veterans, and Seffers says Team River Runner helps with that transition.

Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“We’re also reconnecting them in a really important way to the social fabric," Seffers noted, "to a new community maybe that will surround them and support them. We’re reconnecting them to themselves physically if there are physical issues that they’re recovering from. This gives them a chance to be confident in something new, where that confidence might have been taken away from them because of what they’ve experienced.”

Despite the criticism some veterans’ programs have been receiving across the country, members of Team River Runner at Shepherd say the program is making a difference.

Webmaster/Eastern Panhandle Bureau Chief/Part-time Education Reporter/Producer, emccormick@wvpublic.org, 304-876-9313, @LizMcCormickWV

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