“On behalf of me and my team it became a no-brainer to host this morning’s event, because it is a cause that has truly resonated with us,” said Sarah Farrell, Marketing Manager of Cape Town’s award-winning Hotel Verde, Africa’s Greenest Hotel.
The occasion was the official December launch of the Warrior on Wheels Foundation, at an upbeat (and, at times, emotional) networking breakfast that – in the words of the invitation – celebrated “a journey of hope, courage and adventure”.
The trailblazing Cape Town-based WOW Foundation is the brainchild of Deirdré Amy Gower. It represents the realisation of her long-nurtured dream to create an organisation that would enable special-needs children and their families to live life to the fullest, by experiencing outdoor adventures like those she and her differently-abled son, Damian, have shared since he was two years old. ‘Warrior on Wheels’ takes its name from a book Deirdré wrote for Damian’s 13th birthday, which was published and later adapted into an acclaimed children’s play.
Now 17 and confined to a wheelchair, Damian has suffered from a mysterious, degenerative affliction (that has rendered him speech-impaired, with severely limited movement) since the age of nine months. His condition has never been accurately diagnosed – but this did not deter his sporty single mother from providing her son with as normal a life as possible – and that included participating in a range of exciting outdoor activities. The duo’s action-packed lifestyle has incorporated horse-riding, cycling, hiking, river-rafting and more … including the Gun Run and Two Oceans half-marathons!
Introduced by MC, Rod Wannenburgh (her partner since 2014 and what she calls “the driving force” behind the WOW Foundation), Deirdré related Damian’s story to a rapt audience, highlighting her determined struggle to be granted permission to ride – pulling Damian in an especially adapted buggy – in the 2013 Cape Argus Cycle Tour. It was only fitting, therefore, that Renée Jordaan, Operations Director of the world’s largest cycling event (now known as the Cape Town Cycle Tour) was next to speak.
Renée admitted that, after having had to refuse Deirdre’s request to compete in the race due to logistical issues, she soon became a ‘buggy activist’ and an ardent campaigner for their cause. This resulted in the board of the Cape Town Cycle Tour Trust granting Deirdré permission to participate, with certain conditions. Deirdré’s milestone achievement caused the organisers to adopt an ‘inclusionist’ philosophy, which has seen the contingent of disabled competitors burgeoning every year. Renée concluded with the words, “The WOW Foundation’s name could not be more apt. In the Cycle Tour they are not ‘warriors on wheelchairs’ but ‘warriors on wheels’ just like 35 000 other cyclists!”
The second guest speaker was dynamic Heidi van der Watt, founder of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism – South Africa, who holds leadership positions in a number of organisations, including the Sustainable Tourism Certification Alliance Africa and the Sustainable Tourism Partnership Programme. (Heidi is also a Director of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council and a member of the WTM Responsible Tourism Advisory Panel.) She outlined a utopian-sounding vision of tourist facilities in South Africa that catered for the diverse needs of the disabled, adding that these do actually exist elsewhere, and challenging players in local tourism with the impassioned injunction: “Today is about the life of a young man, and an opportunity for all children and all adults to do what they would like to do – and for the tourism industry to make that possible!”
The final speaker, who epitomised the spirit of the inspiring, life-affirming launch event (and has, herself, been ‘confined’ to a wheelchair since a car accident at the age of 18) was quadriplegic Paralympian hand-cyclist, Justine Asher. In under three years, she has become one of the world’s top competitors in the women’s H2 class, winning a double gold at the UCI Para-cycling World Cup earlier in 2015. A married mother of two, Justine is also South Africa’s first paralysed scuba diver, Her message was clear: Adventure and exercise can be life-changing for the disabled and the more support physically challenged children receive, the more they benefit. She applauded the WOW Foundation and urged others to get involved and support their cause.
A visibly moved Rod Wannenburgh then outlined the short- and long-term goals of the recently registered NPO, and introduced the dedicated WOW team, comprising himself, Deirdré Amy Gower, Ashlyn Sweatman and Sara-Jayne Willicott. He explained that the Foundation has based its model on the Best Day Foundation in the USA, which provides adventures for disabled children. Their emphasis is on water-sports, but with the wealth of natural beauty and exhilarating outdoor activities in and around Cape Town, Warrior on Wheels will be able to offer a wide variety of safe, stringently controlled adventures, including surfing, game drives, paragliding, motor racing, zip-lining, ballooning, and monthly ‘adventure days’, in partnership with various service providers and volunteers. Ultimately, the Foundation aims to assist with the rehabilitation of disabled children as well.
Rod crystallised the Foundation’s ground-breaking vision and mission by saying: “Our team believes in living and loving life – so why should it be any different for the disabled? WOW is all about having fun and overcoming fear. It is (as the slogan states) a story of ‘hope, courage and adventure’. So many families with physically challenged kids live in survival mode. We want to liberate them from that – while also changing perceptions and bridging gaps between the able-bodied and differently-abled by providing special adventures, tailored for special kids, who feel confident, self-assured and excited to participate.”
He concluded with the message that the WOW Foundation’s bold intention to enrich, uplift and empower disabled children and their families can be achieved by forging mutually beneficial partnerships with adventure-providers, events coordinators, community organisations, churches, schools, volunteers, and potential funders.