Veterans Energized By Kids’ Day

U.S. Air Force veteran, Michael Guilbault follows his mentee around the bases at the39th NVWG in Louisville. (Photo by Christopher Di Virgilio).
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After more than 20 years of waiting to participate in Kids’ Day, Michael Guilbault finally got his chance.

And the Air Force veteran found what couldn’t have been a more perfect mentor/mentee pairing with 9-year-old Ean VanGordon Saturday afternoon at the 39th National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) at the Kentucky International Convention Center in Louisville Ky.

Although VanGordon had never played wheelchair softball, Guilbault didn’t actually have to show him about the sport too much. Vangordon, who was born with spina bifida, picked it up right away (he credited his wheelchair tennis work), hitting a couple home runs and making some nice defensive plays. 

“He’s a little bit of a ham, and I’m kind of known for that,” the 60-year-old Guilbault joked.

Saturday’s second day of the NVWG featured a handful of sports – field events, air rifle, boccia ball, quad rugby, obstacle course (slalom), power soccer, trap shooting table tennis, track and wheelchair softball – taking place along with Kids’ Day. Field events took athletes to some scenic areas like Pope Lick Park in Louisville, while track had participants venture into neighboring state Indiana at Jeffersonville High School in Jeffersonville, Ind.

Ean VanGordon,9, swings at the ball during Kids' Day at the 39th NVWG in Louisville. (Photo by Christopher Di Virgilio)

Sports – that’s what bonded Guilbault and Vangordon.

They may have grown up in different parts of the country, but it’s baseball, along with wheelchair softball, that helped them team together. They talked about Major League Baseball’s Home Run Derby, their favorite baseball teams and players, while also participating in wheelchair softball and an obstacle course (or slalom) event.

“I liked that he was a veteran,” said VanGordon, an incoming fourth-grader from Indianapolis. “We talked about sports and stuff.”

Guilbault does a disability awareness program for elementary schools, primarily for 10-year-old fourth-graders. It just so happened that his mentee was nearly that.

“I believe that by educating the kids, we’re actually educating the whole community. You know how you get the attention of a fourth-grader? You tell them you might learn something today that your parents don’t know. You’ll be able to go home and teach them,” Guilbault said. “But you know what? They’re little sponges. They know so much at that age and that’s where I hook them.”

VanGordon was one of 19 kids who participated in the Kids’ Day event. He finished the obstacle course but nearly tipped over on his face during the first obstacle – some raised carpeted strips that he had to navigate up and over. After that, he had to do a 360-degree turnaround in a circle, go up and down a ramp and finished by going over some raised block strips before crossing the finish line. VanGordon liked wheelchair softball the most.

“Softball – cause it was just more fun. I just liked it,” VanGordon said. 

Guilbault was injured in 1995, when he sustained a C6-C7 injury in a 1995 motor vehicle accident from falling asleep at the wheel in Billerica, Mass. His first NVWG was in 1998 in Pittsburgh. He thinks this will be one of his best memories.

“What really made his (VanGordon’s) day is he came for baseball and he’s a baseball guy. OK, you’ve got to do all three. OK, let’s play some defense. OK, you want to go get in line? It was long. Let’s go play some more softball,” Guilbault said. “When there was one thing over there, he went over, he ripped through that obstacle course. He did do it. And he came back and he hit like four home runs. And he’s fast. And when he played defense, he was covering down on the ball, he was chasing people down.”

Guilbault serves as the PVA New England Chapter vice president and sports director – and acknowledged his two top NVWG passions are wheelchair softball and the obstacle course (slalom). But he also enjoys helping the kids.

“I enjoy this. I enjoy doing it at home. I know what a difference it makes and impacts the community and how it really helps somebody’s life. This kid’s already stepped in the right direction,” Guilbault said. “Kids that haven’t seen that should be made aware of this. This is amazing.”

Navy veteran Darryl Lair thought it was amazing, too. Kids’ Day was the highlight of his first NVWG. The 57-year-old Devore, Calif., resident does plenty to help kids, teaching cooking classes to children with disabilities in California and does demonstrations with his quad car at camps.

“Because I love the energy kids have and I want them to recognize what they’re capable of and that there are so many opportunities out there,” said Lair, who served from 1981-85 on board the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier as a machinist mate and sustained a T5 injury after a 1991 car accident in Brenda, Ariz. “They can be just like anybody else. They can accomplish anything. There’s nothing you can’t do just because you have a physical disability.”


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