Founded in October 2015, the Warrior on Wheels Foundation is a unique, Cape-based South African NPO, which began with one woman’s passionate desire to enable her wheelchair-bound, special needs son to live life to the fullest – allowing him to experience, first-hand, the disability-defying thrill of a wide range of outdoor activities usually beyond the realm of expectation – even for most able-bodied children.
For Damian Gower, who has been quadriplegic and with limited speech since a toddler, this extraordinary dream became an exciting, fun-filled, personal reality, thanks to the courage, ambition and unwavering determination of his feisty mother, Deirdré.
Deirdré’s partner, Rod Wannenburgh, who fortuitously entered her and Damian’s life in 2014, has been the prime motivator and driving force in taking her vision forward and establishing Warrior on Wheels, so as to light up the lives of other children who have not had the same opportunities.
- I don’t think there was ever a specific moment where I made a decision to expose him to life as opposed to cosseting him – it was just a natural continuation of life for us. – Deirdré Gower
Born in 1998 in East London, South Africa, Damian was a normal, healthy, nine-month-old when, after contracting measles following a routine vaccination, he began to display the first symptoms of an insidious, degenerative affliction that was to progressively deprive him of the capacity to walk, stand, crawl, or even sit upright unassisted. To this day, despite exhaustive tests over the years, Damian’s mysterious disorder – which has left him spastic, trapped in a frail, largely immobile child’s body, and with severely limited communication abilities – has never been accurately diagnosed, but he continues to survive and thrive against all odds. Transcending the inevitable feelings of helplessness, fear, despair and rage that would normally overwhelm the average person confronted with the daunting task of being unexpectedly faced with raising a profoundly disabled son, sole breadwinner and single mother Deirdré was bolstered by her continuing faith, and hope – not for a miracle cure – but that, with a little help, Damian could lead as happy and fulfilling a life as possible.
Wild & wonderful wheelchair adventures
- The only limitations we have in life are the ones we put on ourselves. We have many more adventures on our agenda and we plan to continue pushing ourselves to live and love life to the furthest extent of possibility. – Deirdré Gower
Although his physical disabilities naturally prohibit him from actively participating in ‘normal’ sporting activities, Deirdré has steadfastly refused to let this stand in the way of her son’s vicarious experiences. Since Damian’s first birthday, the mother-and-son duo, who relocated to the Mother City in 2010, have shared numerous exhilarating adventures, amongst others:
- Hiking in nature reserves
- Elephant rides (in Knysna)
- Climbing Table Mountain
- River rafting (on the Breede River)
- Horse-trail safaris
- Taking part in two 21 km Cape Town half-marathons: the famous Two Oceans race and the Gun Run, on both occasions pulled by veteran runner, Graeme Keehne.
- Completing the world-renowned annual Cape Town (formerly Cape Argus Pick ‘n Pay Momentum) Cycle Tour This proved to be a landmark achievement for the pair, as Deirdré had previously been denied permission to tow Damian in a specially adapted buggy, during her first tour in 2012. Thanks to her pioneering efforts, and the generous support of the accommodating Cycle Tour office (who subsequently put various stringent safety measures in place), the ruling was overturned and a new category established. In 2013, Deirdré and Damian competed in the 109 kilometre event, along with three other cycle-drawn buggy teams, backed by the well-established Chaeli Campaign. The two also completed the race the following year. Due to an increase in Damian’s weight, combined with Deirdré’s petite stature, a volunteer, Wolf Stinnes, pulled him during the 2015 and 2016 cycle tours.
The birth of Warrior on Wheels
In 2012, as Damian’s 13th birthday was approaching, Deirdré wrote and illustrated a self-published work, to honour her son’s ‘coming of age’. Warrior on Wheels relates the adventures of a boy who confronts and overcomes the myriad challenges of survival in a magical world, while confined to a wheelchair. Through her connection with the Chaeli Campaign, Deirdré was approached by playwright and director, Jared Kruger, who adapted her book as a charming, uplifting children’s puppet show that has since been performed to considerable acclaim at theatres countrywide, including at the Grahamstown Festival. The play was recently transformed by artistic director, Jayne Batzofin, into an African-storytelling genre, so as to reach a wider, more varied audience, while still conveying the original message of hope, and conquering fear.
Unchaining the Warrior Spirit – Our vision
- Our primary goal is to get special- needs children and their families out there having adventures with us. I understand how, in different phases of life with a special needs child, many families go into survival mode – focusing only on the day-to-day challenges medically, physically, emotionally, practically and financially. – Deirdré Gower
Inspired by the numerous joyful and empowering experiences she and Damian have enjoyed together, Deirdré’s initial vision was to create an ‘adventure centre’ with facilities catering for disabled children. However, on moving to Cape Town, she realised that this would limit the ability to explore the area’s wealth of other accessible attractions.
The most significant aim of Warrior on Wheels is to share this world of endless possibility with other special needs children and their families, in a safe, inclusive, yet stimulating environment that is not restricted to capability levels, as well as to provide a rare opportunity for socialising and forging friendships outside of school. An equally important secondary goal is to provide funds for rehabilitation, which is a crucial, but all too often, unaffordable step towards enhancing quality of life. With the aid of sponsorship, and volunteers who are willing to give of their ‘time and muscle’ (while simultaneously improving within their own sporting disciplines in a rewarding and meaningful way), Warrior on Wheels plans to provide an action-packed calendar of adventures for children who might not otherwise have the privilege of enjoying enriching outdoor experiences.
- For volunteers and communities, we hope to change perceptions about the limitations of living life with a disability and bridge gaps in lifestyle between able-bodied and disabled children by creating an environment where we are all helping each other in various ways… – Deirdré Gower
Written by Maggie Follett