Rollin’ Along

Reprinted from PN January 2010

A dancing quintet’s power-chair performance wows the audience at this year’s National Veterans Creative Arts Festival.

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The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) sponsors or cosponsors six national rehabilitation special events each year: the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, Golden Age Games, Winter Sports Clinic, Summer Sports Clinic, TEE Tournament, and Creative Arts Festival. All but the last offer sports and recreational activities as an effective rehabilitation modality for veterans adjusting to a wide variety of injuries and illnesses. The Creative Arts Festival, on the other hand, uses the creative arts to help veterans recover from and cope with physical and emotional disabilities.

Across the country, veterans treated at VA medical centers participate in local creative arts contests. This competition includes 50 art categories that range from oil painting to leatherwork to paint-by-number kits. In addition, 120 categories pertain to all aspects of music, dance, drama, and creative writing. A national selection committee chooses first-, second-, and third-place winners from all the entries. Select winners are then invited to attend the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival each year.

Hosted by the South Texas Veterans Health Care System, the 2009 National Veterans Creative Arts Festival was in San Antonio, Tex., October 5–11. Of the 109 veterans attending the event, 10 use wheelchairs.

For five of the participants who have spinal-cord injuries (SCIs), dancing competitively is just another hurdle in a series of challenges each of these Vietnam-era vets has taken on. Performed at the festival’s stage show on October 11, the group’s act was the first totally mobilized power-wheelchair performance in the annual event’s long history.

“Family” of Friends

Ertemus Bell, Lawrence Green, Leo Lawson, Sylvester Lewis, and Albert Thetfort are like family, having faced similar trials adapting to their injuries. While the group’s members all serve as peer counselors at the Memphis VA Medical Center, their recovery journeys were not easy, and they characterize their adjustment to their injuries as slow.

“I was not satisfied with just lying there,” Bell says. “I would take my wheelchair and go round and round. I got lots of laughs as I spun around.”

He adds that part of his treatment plan involved a therapist helping him reintegrate into everyday life, taking him to department stores and making him venture into the food courts by himself.

U.S. Marine Corps veteran Rick Stang sings “More Than a Name on a Wall” during the 2009 National Veterans Creative Arts Festival.

Bell, 56, and Lawson, 59, were childhood buddies but lost contact with each other after Bell’s family moved to another neighborhood in Memphis. They reconnected at the Memphis VAMC as patients going through SCI treatment and rehabilitation. Their reunion has helped them in the process of adjusting to their injuries.

Green admits that when he was first paralyzed he was really angry for more than six months. A young pastor encouraged him by telling him to find his faith, and that helped him cope with his newfound circumstances.

“You can stay angry or go on with life,” Green says. “One good thing about VA is that there are others facing the same issues.”

At first Green hesitated to go out in public, but with the help of his therapists and fellow veterans, he has overcome that concern. Lawson relishes the friendships he’s made with the other group members.

“We are inseparable, close friends,” he says. “We make sure we look out for each other. If we don’t see someone for two or three days, we check up on them.”

As performers at the Creative Arts Festival in San Antonio, the five men dubbed themselves “The Rollin’ Survivors.” The group’s trip to the event started with inspiration from Lawson, who sang a solo in another year’s competition. Lawson started looking for something different his buddies could also participate in for the 2009 performance. His inspiration came at a family gathering when his family began to line dance.

As he watched his extended family dance, Lawson began to move to the music in his wheelchair.

“I began to think that if I found the right music, the group could just practice until we could fit it to the music,” he recalls.

At a group meeting, Lawson brought up the idea. No one there turned him down, so he had the green light to proceed. Lawson took on the position of choreographer, individualizing the power-wheelchair dance routine for each group member.

“Sylvester (Lewis) likes to turn,” Lawson says. “There is a little something for everyone in the final performance.”

The group debuted their performance of the electric slide, set to the music of “Mississippi Mudslide Cha Cha” at a Veterans Talent Show at the Memphis VAMC, after the therapists there worked to get the stage wheelchair accessible with a special ramp rented for the group.

“We just needed to get these guys up on stage, and I knew they would make it as finalists,” says Peggy Neil, lead recreation therapist at the Memphis VA facility. Neil says the group’s exit after the performance was very dramatic, with the entourage of five exiting in their motorized wheelchairs.

“They are truly inspiring,” Neil says. “It takes a few to get the many inspired.”

That performance took top honors at the local Memphis VA competition, earning the Rollin’ Survivors a berth at the national festival. As part of their peer-counseling role, the Rollin’ Survivors invite other SCI patients to join them for dance routines at the VAMC, in addition to arts and crafts projects.

“Life is not over with because you are paralyzed,” Bell says. “Your life is still left; the wheelchair does not define us. We can still do things, but in a different way.”

As for next year’s competition, the group already has formulated plans inspired by their time in Texas. The Rollin’ Survivors plan to bring a country western song to life—complete with western garb and Stetson hats. The group hopes their encore performance will land them a slot in the 2010 National Veterans Creative Arts Festival in LaCrosse, Wis., in October.

Enter Now!

The National Veterans Creative Arts Festival is presented by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Help Hospitalized Veterans, and the American Legion Auxiliary. The festival is the culmination of a year-long fine arts talent competition involving nearly 3,500 participants nationwide. It is open to all veterans receiving care at VA medical facilities.

During Festival week, award-winning visual artists display their work at a public exhibit. This is followed by performers in music, drama, dance, and creative-writing categories showcasing their talents in an entertaining stage show backed by a professional orchestra. The Rollin’ Survivors were among more than 100 veterans from across the country who were invited to the San Antonio event.

For more information about submitting an entry in the National Veterans Creative Arts competition, contact the recreation therapy department at the VAMC nearest you. Competition begins this month.

Visit Creative Arts Festival for more information.


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