Making the Most of Second Chances
As a young man, David Jones was an avid outdoorsman: hunting, SCUBA diving, fishing and a general love of nature filled his days. Growing up in Tallahassee, Florida, he graduated from Amos P. Godby High School and Tallahassee Community College. He went on to enjoy a 14-year career with Winn Dixie Stores until founding and operating Cecils' Deli, his own small business. That all changed in 1988 when Jones was shot in the head while turkey hunting, which left him in a coma for nine days. Though he survived the traumatic brain injury, he stayed for three months at HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital and engaged in a full year of extensive rehab and recovery before he could walk, talk and function again. “I was blessed to have a much more successful rehab than anticipated. I was given a second chance at life,” he said.
The experience, and the lessons he learned during rehabilitation, completely changed his world view. “The value of the recreational therapy really motivated me, it gave me the desire to reach out and help others through recreation and leisure activities,” noted Jones. But in 1988, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) did not yet exist, and Jones wasn’t quite sure where to start. He said there were no resources to help guide him, so he figured it out on his own. He came up with the idea of the Florida Disabled Outdoors Association (FDOA) while attending the College of Business at Florida State where he finished his degree in marketing. His new occupational path became disability advocacy. “That was my new direction, my goal in life, to help others.” Just two years later, in 1990, Jones founded FDOA, the same year ADA was enacted.
FDOA started by doing mostly local outings and trips. “We stumbled from time to time,” Jones noted, but over time the organization became statewide in scope, partnering with volunteers, colleges and community organizations to deliver programs to thousands of people. The organization’s most recognized event, SportsAbility, started because of a water skiing clinic and is now hosted in multiple cities across the country. “As I was helping others, I learned that everyone has different interests, so we expanded our reach to all types of leisure activities,” explained Jones.
Prior to the accident, Jones had paddled his whole life “when I had two arms and two legs that were fully functional.” With his left side now paralyzed, paddling was a challenge. His first kayaking trip after the injury was with a mixed group of paddlers on the Suwannee River. He and his grown daughter, who was managing her own serious health challenges at the time, shared a tandem kayak. She provided the strength, and David attempted the steering. “I didn’t take it slow because I thought I could do it. It was a good downriver trip, but I learned real quick that kayaking is a lot different than paddling a canoe or boat with one arm, there’s a lot more back and forth motion in a kayak.” Just as the group encountered bad weather and decided to speed things up, his daughter started going into a diabetic crisis. “We were getting nervous about her, and she couldn’t really help at all. I ended up having to tie my kayak to another paddler who pulled us,” Jones explained. “Needless to say, my first experience of kayaking was not a smooth endeavor.”
Two Peas in a Pod
Fast forward about three decades, and through his expansive network, Jones, now age 63, met Thomas Weldon, a retired civil servant living in Homosassa, Florida. Like Jones before him, Weldon, age 68, had recently gone through a series of personal life transitions himself, not the least of which was finding a new passion to occupy his time in retirement.
Weldon is a lifelong kayaker who, along with his brother, has paddled all over Florida. “Tom liked seeing what I had done (with FDOA) and was searching for where to go next. He’d seen the benefits of therapeutic recreation for himself, and it really stayed with him,” noted Jones. “We developed a relationship, and I invited him to come up to see our programs.” That visit inspired Weldon to get more involved in improving paddling for other groups of people. “He is the kind of person that helps programs like ours survive and thrive,” said Jones.
Weldon saw the challenges associated with adaptive paddling and recognized it was a place where he could lend his considerable talents while enjoying his sport of choice. “Tom's goal is to be able to teach paddling, do some kayaking trips and provide opportunities for others. He just wanted to create a fulfilling volunteer opportunity for himself,” explained Jones.
Jones and Weldon went on some paddling trips together so Weldon could see and feel firsthand the unique challenges different paddlers face, such as balance and trunk control. He also familiarized himself with other devices that would help paddlers be successful and keep them safe, including the use of outriggers for added stability. “You have to see the issues up close to understand how to work with them,” said Jones.
Paddling Then and Now
With his mechanical know-how, Weldon started refining equipment and creating new adaptations. It was during this time that he discovered the Versa paddle, manufactured by Angle Oar LLC. Versa is specifically designed for paddlers with limited strength or mobility in their upper torso or limbs, or limited endurance. The paddle rests in a paddle holder that is mounted directly to the kayak and rotates around a post in every direction. Versa’s shafts are both adjustable in length, and the paddle can be used as a straight paddle or angled downward on both sides, which provides an added degree of stress-reduction because the paddler’s hands and arms remain closer to the body.
Weldon mounted the Versa system to a sit-in kayak for Jones, and two went with Jones' family and friends to enjoy the cool, crystal clear waters of the beautiful Chipola River near Marianna, Florida. “We rigged up his Necky Rip 10 with Versa and outriggers, and Dave just took off. I couldn’t keep up with him,” explained Weldon, who described the experience as “very emotional.”
“The opportunity to be able to paddle myself, to control the kayak and go as slow or fast as I wanted and not be a burden to anyone, was a thrill for me,” Jones exclaimed. “I loved it, and it whet my appetite for paddling again.”
The group eventually stopped at a sandbar, but it was extremely difficult for Jones to get in and out of the boat to enjoy the hot springs with the others. That experience got the two of them thinking about ways to get people with hemiplegia, like Jones, as well as other people with physical disabilities, an easier way to mount and dismount from the kayak. They decided to retrofit a standup paddle board with a Versa system and a seat.
“With Versa, it was so easy to use. I could just swing my legs around (to get on and off the SUP). My response was just a big grin from ear to ear because it worked,” said Jones. “It showed me that it could be done and that I could enjoy paddling again and spending time with my family and friends, and so could others.”
Weldon has gone on to retrofit a number of different kayaks for FDOA with Versa, including a SeaEagle inflatable paddle board. “It’s really allowing people to do things they couldn’t normally do,” he said. “It’s a game changer.”
Weldon recently picked up Angle Oar’s latest product, the Gamut universal paddle holder. It works with the same mounting systems as Versa, but paddlers can use their own paddle. “Gamut is a great addition to our adaptive paddling equipment. I can’t wait to try it out.”