Giving freedom through teaching sports |

Giving freedom through teaching sports

RYAN SLABAUGH/summit daily news
Special to the Daily/Mary Keeling William, a Costa Rican, happily receives his new wheelchair from volunteers with the Mobility Project.

Cesar sat by a tennis court in Costa Rica. “I’m fine just watching,” he said. Little did he know how those four words would change his life.

A quadriplegic, he had no use of his hands, so sitting on the sideline wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. Out of curiosity, he had wandered over to the court where disabled athletes and coaches scurried around.

Many were trying out their new wheelchairs, and were an example of the power that surrounded Cesar. He had caught a group called Project Mobility busy improving lives.

Cesar wasn’t watching for long. One of the volunteers, Richard St. Denis, a former Summit County attorney who is paralyzed from the waist down, helped secure his hands to a racket with athletic tape.

Cesar picked it up fast. By the end of the week, he had won the “Most Improved” award, picked up a sport wheelchair and a tennis racket, and promised his coaches to get better. Sport chairs feature slanted wheels and extra support to keep them from tipping. Some range in the thousands of dollars, but these were free.

Project Mobility, a nonprofit based in Colorado Springs, is using a Summit County labor force of St. Denis, Gene and Therese Dayton and Mary Keeling to help perform these transformations. It takes hundreds of volunteers to make the operation happen, but these locals have helped bring kids and adults the gift of mobility.

For example, there’s William.

William showed up in his mother’s arms. The Costa Rican had no use of his legs and, for the first 40-odd years of his life, had lived the same way. Every day, his mom washed him. His mom carried him.

As the 16th of 21 children, he had no way to raise money for a wheelchair. His father had been murdered, and his mother grew old without growing weak. So, on a day where temperatures cleared 100 degrees, his 80-year-old caretaker mother carried William into the Project Mobility site.

When they left, William wheeled away next to his mother who, for the first time in decades, could watch her son move himself. Again, volunteers had given the gift of freedom.

“Our goal in every trip is to give hope, dignity and independence to people with disabilities all over the world,” St. Denis said. “We can teach them to use their wheelchairs through sports.”

St. Denis pioneered disabled tennis instruction. He became the first U.S. Tennis Association certified instructor to be disabled, and first gave away wheelchairs in 1997. A friend invited him to Mexico to work with people with disabilities and, by the end, he presented a 15-year-old girl with her first wheelchair.

“She was so happy, she changed my life,” he said. Then, he discovered Mobility Project and was asked to install his sports camps into their program. Now, they visit countries all over the world – including Afghanistan, Vietnam and El Salvador – teaching people how to use their new wheelchairs and how to play tennis.

Mary Keeling, who taught Spanish at the high school and junior college level for 32 years, heard about Mobility Project three years ago at Agape Outpost Baptist Chapel in Breckenridge. She stored the information and, when she retired, she decided to go to Costa Rica.

“It’s beyond my imagination that somebody needs a wheelchair that doesn’t have one,” said Keeling, who translated between volunteers and families. “Some of these kids are absolutely brilliant, but they’re trapped in these bodies. We put one little girl in a chair and five minutes later, she was tooling around the gymnasium.”

Once a chair is donated, it is boxed and sent to South Dakota, where inmates add padding, foot rests, head rests and any other parts that were missing or broken.

Some chairs are delivered to Iowa, where a man refurbishes them and includes gifts like Barbie Dolls with the finished project. Then, Project Mobility brings them to places like Costa Rica, where an internal volunteer group has already developed a list of needy people.

“We make sure we’re serving the poorest of the poor,” Therese Dayton said. “We couldn’t outfit or service everybody. But the families that receive these chairs are very, very appreciative and very patient. They’ll wait eight hours with a smile on their face.”

In Costa Rica, the work began early in the morning. Day 1 presented a challenge Keeling had never seen. Four nuns carried more than a dozen children into the work station, which was protected by armed guards.

Most of these children had suffered birth defects that left them immobile and unwanted. These were the children left on doorsteps. They had never moved without the help of somebody else. Like William and Cesar, they left the Project Mobility site with a new sense of power.

“Things are so different in America,” Keeling said. “We depend on insurance companies and doctors. They have groups of friends and relatives who spend their lives taking care of them. Not only were we giving the people needing wheelchairs mobility, we were giving freedom to their caretakers.”

Each day that followed, new challenges arose. AIDS patients, sweltering heat and cramped sleeping conditions helped the volunteers count their blessings. Even the First Lady of Costa Rica arrived.

Yet all four volunteers want to return. A trip to Mexico in December, a trip to Afghanistan which is preparing its first Paralympic team, or a trip to South America next summer to teach disabled skiing. The cost is minimal – airfare plus around $400 for lodging, transportation, food and accommodations.

“I’m doing this full time,” St. Denis said. “It was pretty hard to maintain a law practice and continue doing this.”

Gene Dayton, who founded the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center to help disabled athletes learn to ski, is making plans for another trip with Therese, his wife.

“Retirement’s not in my vocabulary,” he joked. “Re-fire-ment is what we say.”

But returning isn’t always easy. Adjusting to life here, where people frown during a rain storm, keeps everything in perspective.

“I come back feeling like, I wish we could slow down a little bit,” Therese said. “I wish it wasn’t always about work. When a family has a meal on a Saturday, 30 people are there. They sit in the front of their house. They just all work together as a team, and that’s how they get along.”

The Mobility Project is always accepting donations of wheelchairs or sporting goods. Those can be dropped off at Agape Outpost Baptist Chapel or the Frisco Nordic Center, which is run by the Daytons. Call ahead to let them know you’re coming. Agape’s number is (970) 453-1247, and the Nordic Center’s number is (970) 668-0866.

For more information, visit

Ryan Slabaugh can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 257, or at

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