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Ashley Thomas advocates for the disabled from personal experience

Updated: Mar 27, 2019


Founder and Executive Director of Bridge II Sports.

Tell us about Bridge II Sports:

Our organization develops programs that allow youth and adults with physical disabilities to participate in recreation, exercise and competitive sports. It grew out of the discoveries I made through a life of chronic pain and having lived with spina bifida all my life.

Bridge II Sports mission is to create opportunities for children and adults who are physically challenged to play team and individual sports by providing equipment, developing sports, teams and coaching, thereby helping them to discover tenacity, confidence, self-esteem, and the joy of finding the player within. I founded Bridge II Sports with a whole host of people, so I never say “I” founded it. I needed a lot of help.

What challenges have made you reflect?

I have always had spina bifida, yet there have been only a few times when my disability threw up a roadblock. From kindergarten through 12th grade, the only class I couldn't get an A in was P.E., because of the Presidential fitness test. My legs didn't have the ability to carry me through the running portion. Concessions were never made for me, since I was ambulatory. It was pretty harsh and I failed.

When I was younger, I had surgery on my feet to correct hammertoes and clubfeet. As a result, I was no longer able to ride a bike and mourned that lost freedom. In high school, I realized I didn’t have any feeling in my legs. I never knew I didn't have any feeling. It was my normal.

In the early 80s, I tried to get a membership to the YMCA and was considered high risk, so I was turned down. I could not work out in a gym, yet I really wanted to engage with my body through working out.

What did you learn from numerous surgeries? How did you come out stronger?

Over the course of time, I had a tumor on my spine removed and multiple hip replacements. My first hip replacement occurred at 35 after having three children; there were 25 small round pieces of that hip that had come off in that joint, resulting in a lot of pain. My journey in my 30s went from a cane, to crutches, to a walker, and then to wheelchair.

When I finally got a wheelchair in my 40s, I was so grateful. By that time, I had five hip replacements. The chair became a tool that actually gave me my life back. I didn’t realize that I had lived my whole life in a state of fatigue because my brain had to think about every movement, telling my feet and legs where to go. The wheelchair gave me back my energy because I no longer had to spend so much effort on moving and thinking about moving.

Where did the wheelchair take you both physically and mentally?

After I went into the wheelchair, I decided to participate in a 5K with my daughter who was in high school at the time. I needed to train and a friend encouraged me to workout at the YMCA. Thankfully in the 2000s, the YMCA changed and let me become a member, and I began training with a trainer. I finally experienced a cardio workout for the first time in my life. Working out became a stress reliever, something that I had been missing and needing. I found when I exercised, pain went away and I felt better. We often forget children who have mobility limits, also carry a lot of stress and pain. All of this inspired me to think about how to get kids moving, how to give them them more opportunities through sports.

Why is it important to be on a team?

During that 5K, I learned I was not a team player. Sports can teach you how to collaborate and own what you didn’t do right. My daughter and I showed up to that Jingle Bell Run 5K in full costume. I quickly realized I was not dressed appropriately and overheated. She and I planned to run the race together. When she started to run ahead of me, I asked her to slow down and stay with me. But then the hills got to me. When we got to the top of one of the four hills, my arms were burning, so I sped down. My daughter asked me to wait for her, but I chose not to because I was hurting and needed a break. They were big hills. My daughter was upset because she waited for me when I didn’t wait for her. I learned I was not a team player because I had always been so independent. The race was revealing to my own character. This was my first team experience but I didn’t perform as a team.

How does your daughter continue to motivate you?

She is now encouraging me to lift weights in the gym with her. We will see where we go! She is a great encourager!

What inspired you to start an organization from the ground up?

During that time, I was volunteering at Duke Children's Hospital and in the Spina Bifida clinic. I had met a lot of kids and parents who had no hope for a future. One day, I brought in some adaptive equipment and organized some clinics for 18 to 26 year olds, thinking this would be easy. However, I found a group of young people who were full of anger. They had always met disappointment when trying to participate in other events, since they always fell through. These kids had lost hope. I learned their reality was true, so I started to think about how I could fix the situation. I love working on problems and coming up with solutions.

While visiting with a young girl who was a junior at Duke Children's Hospital, I asked about her collegre plans. She looked at me and rolled her eyes and said,, “What am I supposed to do?” I replied and spoke the truth, “Yes you have a disability but your brain is smart, so don't waste it.” The adult who was with her looked at me and said, “I have never thought of it like that.” I gave them some tools to shift their perspective. I asked why are you letting yourself be defined by this? Don’t let disability define your outcome. After meeting several more families, I wanted to change this. I wanted to change mindsets and offer support through athletics.

How did you establish a sports program?

I asked myself: can I create change through sports and what kind of training would I need? I began going to conferences with an organization that had sports clubs all over the country. I received training about many disabilities and learned what each needed to be aware of medically, in order to keep participants safe.

I then planned our first event that included a small grant, a sponsor, and volunteers from a high school wrestling team. We planned for 30 participants and ended up having 12 people attend after working on it for eight months. I thought it was a failure until I spoke with other organizations; I learned it was actually a highly successful event. That was the beginning and we never stopped. And here we are now, so much larger with groups across the Southeast. We still maintain our core value: if one kid shows up, we move forward with the event.

Soon afterwards, I approached Parks and Recs to collaborate with them. Since they operate with a bottom line model, they have to cancel events with low participation. We decided if they provide the space, we will then provide the program.

In what other ways does Bridge II Sports offer support?

Children in the program are always going through surgery. As a result, it is essential that we remain very relational. When kids come come back from the surgery process, they are behind. I remember feeling like I missed out on everything. We help kids keep relationships going through that recovery period. We deal with the whole person and have a parent-athlete handbook to assist with this important aspect. Parents of kids with disabilities can be very protective—rightfully so. Often a child knows when they are left out. We developed a Parent/Athlete handbook to outline our expectations of parent and athlete as well as what they can expect of Bridge II Sports. Parents and older athletes have to sign-off on this handbook creating accountability. We believe that many are more capable than expected. It is a discovery when we begin down this path and can make them all feel uncomfortable at first, as they learn to navigate a new world of independence.

We aim for small step successes. If you set the bar too high, you will set everyone up for failure. For example, in basketball our only goals for a new player the first few months are chair-skills. Participants can’t use a ball until they learn chair-skills. They have to break it down, have fun, build skills, and learn to be on a team. That is coaching 101. If you build the skill you will always get a win! The team always establishes a team goal, like how many points they want to make in a game. Even when we lose, we have a chance to win. Participants also set individualized skill goals, sport skill goals, as well as academic goals. If kids are not passing in school, they cannot travel with the team to competitions.

How doe Bridge II Sports impact futures?

Youth find a purpose for their future through our program. We encourage them to think about their future without judgement. We may ask deeper questions that help them think about how they can accomplish their goal. For example, a six year old set his skill goal to remembering to brush his teeth every morning. A 14 year old girl wanted to put her wheelchair into the car independently— thinking ahead for when she starts to drive. We encourage parents to let them try goals on their own to let them figure out challenges, but stay close enough so that they can call for help. These goals introduce and cultivate a piece of independence.

What are the benefits of the program for parents?

As coaches, we check in with parents quite often. We meet with parents to discuss their hopes and goals for their kids. Parents find independence, while their children do too. They realize their children are more capable than they often give them credit for. At Bridge II Sports, parents support one another. There is a strong support network here.

How are you trying to impact legislation?

We just finished working on getting legalization passed to go into schools introducing a new sport...adaptive sports. In North Carolina, there are 24 thousand students in public school who would benefit by having access to adaptive sports. When everyone is playing in a sports chair, the playing field is even. We have written for a federal grant to provide equipment across the state to further build these programs, since the wheelchairs are $2500 a piece.

Overall, what are your main goals of the program?

My ultimate goal is to keep kids healthy and confident, armed with self-esteem so that they can go on to a find a job, be part of a community, and be productive in some way. You have to respect the journey and be patient. We need to support and encourage one another while maintaining standards.

We are not offering opportunities to people with disabilities. The able-bodied world would say a disability is the worst thing that can happen, some because of the fear and others of not understanding. This is all I have ever known, as well as most of these children. There are ways to work around disabilities that no longer make you disabled. I know the journey personally of what it is like to live with disabilities. Adapted sports allows children with disabilities to not be limited by them. They learn how to overcome them to have a future.

Through the NC Everybody Plays NC movement, my hope is that children will play the adapted version of sports know by all, and begin to respect a child with disability, and seeing that they too have purpose and ability. A child with a disability shouldn’t be seated at the sidelines. When we allow ourselves to stop and see the outcomes, we realize how smart and capable these kids are.

How is Bridge II Sports supported financially?

I have learned, for a nonprofit, it’s best to attain a third of the money from donors, a third of the money from grants, and a third of the money from businesses. We host several major event, write a host of grants, and invite individual to be 360 Club monthly donors. Families pay an annual membership fee of $150. This fee doesn’t cover costs of the programs, but makes everyone have some skin in the game. We have a scholarship opportunity for those in need. Parents submit 500 words stating what the value of the program is for their family and child. The child also has to submit what the program means to them, with certain ages drawing a picture if they cannot write. These stories become testimonies for us to use when we write grants and public support for donations.

August Madness is your biggest fundraiser each year. Tell us why it’s so fun and effective:

The event is Friday, August 12th at PNC Arena, Raleigh, NC. An all-star draft pick that in the past has included a host of athletes from different levels of sport competition. Four players makes a team with a minimum $1,000 donation for a corporate/community team. It’s been fun from the very first year when Jerry Steakhouse participated. Folks get to see the fun and athleticism of wheelchair basketball. The fifth player is selected at the Draft that can include players who NBA players, retired players, and university athletes from North Carolina. Everyone wants a wheelchair player for their fifth pick. The kids in the program coach the corporate teams since the adult participants are bigger and could accidentally hurt a child. Again, we are all about safety. The event challenges able-bodied attitudes and bodies and in turn creates recruiters who recruit from the heart. They have experienced the incredible impact firsthand and share that firsthand passion. What better way is there to recruit someone who is in the journey of disability, than recruiting from the heart. Come see what the event is all about! As always, admission is free for spectators.

Does your organization belong to a basketball association?

We are part of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, specifically the Southeast region that includes Mississippi, Tennessee, North Carolina and further south. I am very pleased to say that NC now has four wheelchair teams. We hope that we can grow that number in with the NC School outreach.

Can you share a little about your background and family?

I was born in North Carolina, but grew up in Illinois. While uninsured, I went through a series of surgeries from high school into my lower 20’s. Fortunately, I was working and had a job that offered insurance. My early years put me on the path of allocating money to pay my medical expenses. After getting married, still working, three children, my husband’s job gave opportunity to live in England. We were there for seven years while homeschooling our children, teaching them Shakespeare and other European culture. Most importantly, we have taught our three children to be resilient and determined.

What are some of your mottos?

-Own the weakness before you build a strength.

-Disability or not, if you don’t have standards everything goes amuck.

-Am I too direct? Well it can be necessary, and with disability, one deals with things in a very black and white way as options may not be available. You have to deal with what’s going on.

-Watch for magic moments— they are fleeting and they are quick.

-A basic truth: if you don’t have a goal or discover what you want to do, disability or not, you are not going to get very far.

What have you learned about yourself personally?

Every surgery helped me to find an understanding of brokenness, as things didn't heal and become perfect. I am stubborn. It’s a good thing and a bad thing. There is purpose to suffering. I am a believer in faith and if you can connect with that, it’s a piece that gives you the courage to overcome a whole lot and you don’t see yourself as disabled. Yes, I use a wheelchair as a tool which allows me to engage, but I am not disabled. I want people to come to understand that and know that. I am human. I make mistakes. But I don’t let them stop me, rather I let them motivate me.

My specially designed kayak adapted for me. I cried the day I received this gift!



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