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Heart Rocks to Greet Wheelchair Veteran Athletes

Amateur athletes compete for the personal satisfaction of accomplishment. They don't do it for the money or for fame. It's purely for the love of the sport.

During the week of July 13th, Tampa will show some love to a group of amateur athletes who will arrive from around the nation for the 33rd Annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games.

Credit Terri Thompson
James Chong, 8; Duane "Red" Jensen, a recreation therapy assistant and disabled veteran; and Olivia Stano, 8, as the heart rocks are delivered to James A. Haley VA for use in the upcoming Wheelchair Games.

More than 600 veterans, all using wheelchairs, will compete in different events from basketball to bowling to quad rugby to table tennis, according to Cathy Williams, head of recreational therapy at Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Hospital, host for the national competition.

“It’s 19 events during the week of July 13 through the 18th in downtown Tampa,” Williams said. “There will be several different venues from Raymond James Stadium to the Convention Center to the Tampa Bay Times Forum.”

And at each of those venues, when the athletes get on and off the buses, they’ll receive a “heart-felt” welcome prepared by children.

More than three dozen hand-painted “heart rocks” with messages for the veterans will be placed at the various stops.

“God made these rocks shaped like a heart because he cares about us,” said James Chong, 8, who helped with the project. “So we made these rocks for the veterans because we love them and care about them.”

Another 8-year-old, Olivia Stano, had her own reasons to paint her heart out for the Veterans Wheelchair Games.

Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
One of the heart rocks painted by children for veterans.

“I wanted to make sure that the veterans knew that we liked how they helped our country,” said Stano, whose cousin and great-grandfather served in the military. And her great-grandfather is in a wheelchair.

That’s the beauty of the heart rocks, which are part of the landscaping. People in wheelchairs tend to see them first, said Terri Thompson, who came up with the project idea.

Thompson, a kindergarten teaching assistant, said the rocks come from a Vietnam veteran who owns a rock and gravel company. He donates heart-shaped rocks that are then decorated for wounded veterans.

“That’s what it’s about. The kids showing their love and the kids understanding the love the vets have for us,” Thompson said.

A few of the children’s heart rocks can already be found on the grounds of the Fisher House near the waterfall at the Haley VA Hospital.

Bobbie O’Brien has been a Reporter/Producer at WUSF since 1991. She reports on general news topics in Florida and the Tampa Bay region.
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