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Wheelchairs at the ready: parabasketball in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires, Argentina, has something for everyone. If a person wants to brush up on Spanish and get the hang of a different accent, the city holds the fine language schools of El Pasaje and Verbum. If culture is one’s thing, Teatro Colon is sure to amaze. If dance is the forte, head to San Telmo district for high leg kicking tango. For history buffs, hunt down Eva Peron’s tomb in Recoleta Cemetery. If a steak grilled to perfection seems like a bit of heaven, feast at Palermo’s Las Canitas. And, of course, no one should omit a Boca Juniors game, accompanied by the fantastic soccer guide Felix through Mix It Up Exchange. However, Buenos Aires holds even more to experience. This Argentine capital serves as the home to CILSA, and I had the opportunity this past spring to volunteer with this awesome organization and its Wheelchair Basketball teams.

Following my morning language class at El Pasaje, I walked to the headquarters of Buenos Aires’ CILSA office in the San Telmo district. CILSA stands for Centro de Inclusion Libre y Solidario de Argentina. It is a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) which was established in 1966 to promote the inclusion of people coming from marginalized sectors of society. It has a number of different programs, some catering to low-income families, while others providing education to the public at large about the disabled. Other programs through CILSA distribute orthopedic devices, organize sport and recreation national programs, and offer scholarships to promote educational inclusion to people with disabilities and in situations of social vulnerability.

Upon being buzzed into the main office, Mariella Gerstein, volunteer coordinator, grabbed hold of me, plucked Buenos Aires’ besos on my cheeks, and made me feel like her sister. Mariella is about 3 ½ feet tall of pure passion and radiates warmth to all she works with. She introduced me to others on the staff, and I particularly remember Silvia Carranza, the Vice President of CILSA. Later I came across Silvia’s challenge to others, and the statement seemed to epitomize her own life: “If you cannot run, trot. If you cannot trot, walk. If you cannot walk, use a walking stick, but never stop going.” Silvia twirled her wheelchair from one office to another, charting employees’ progress, and encouraging all at every turn. We established my volunteer schedule of assisting with the practices and games of the adults and teens Wheelchair Basketball teams. Additionally, I would accompany CILSA to distribute wheelchairs to children in a nearby pueblo and attend a fiesta for those they serve.

Two evenings a week practices of the Wheelchair Basketball team were held at their state-of-the-art facility in the Belgrano neighborhood. Next to the gym lied Olympic size swimming pools, one for diving and one for laps. Soccer fields, catering to blind children enjoying the sport, also dotted the area. Basketball games in other cities as well as at this facility are held most weekends. I accompanied Mariella to the practices. We caught a quick sandwich at the snack bar and met some of the adult team members. Louis Paz, the coordinator for both the adult and the teenage team, extended his broad smile. “Let’s inch back our wheelchairs and broaden the circle,” Louis instructed his players, and soon I was encircled in their group. They shared a bit of their stories and much of their love for sports. Echoing throughout, the players affirmed that playing sports was their key to rehabilitation. For example, Christian was half way through med school when a car accident caused his paralysis. He felt like dropping out of school, perhaps out of life. Then he began playing basketball. The experience convinced him to continue with med school. Now he is a top pulmonary specialist in the country. His eyes twinkled as I kidded with him, telling him in my broken Spanish, “You’ll always have job security with just about everyone smoking in Argentina.” A star player on the team suffered the loss of both legs and one arm in a train accident. Much to my amazement, he made about 80% of his baskets. It seemed as if the wheelchair was glued to him as he spun left and right and darted away from his competitors. It was not unusual during a practice or a game to have a player tumble out of his chair. As a spectator, I gasped and wanted to rush on the court and assist him settle back into the wheelchair. Mariella would lovingly look at me, take hold of my hand, and hold me gently back. The player would shuffle from the floor to his chair, scoot himself upright, and settle into position. He proved to be a master of independence. One gentleman brought to every practice his most avid fan, his teenage granddaughter. I learned that this grandfather has custody of his grandchild. Their bond of love rang out in cheers with every basket made. This, indeed, was a Team of Champions.

In fact, CILSA Buenos Aires won the national Wheelchair Basketball Tournament just a few months before my visit. The team members wanted me to experience playing the sport from their perspective. The wheelchairs are engineering models, costing approximately $5,000 each. With a bit of skill, one can twirl and dash down court. However, this does not make landing a basket all that easy. For one thing, the player is in a low sitting position. And shooting for a basket without the umpf from one’s leg muscles is a tremendous challenge. At every practice, the team would pluck me in a wheelchair, encourage me to go for it, and laugh when my shots never reached the rim of the basket. They knew that they were Champs, demonstrating strong comradeship one to another, and inspiring others to reach for success in spite of life’s setbacks.

The teen team proved to be a different kind of delight. They were not as fiercely competitive as the adults, but their kindness to me proved endearing. Damien Gonzalo is their coach, and he prods 11 to 15 year olds into keeping up with family chores, school work, and oh yes, basketball. Javiar, Daniel, and Guido (ages 11 and 12) could spout out facts about their beloved Boca Juniors. Jose and Dylan, both 14, confided that math was not their favorite subject. And Nicholas, age 15, tried his hardest to improve my espanol. One young girl was also a teammate, and they welcomed her royally. In fact as I think back about this team, I cannot recall another teenage group that radiated such kindness. They gladly brought me into their circle, shared stories and laughter with me, and let me see that their friendship to others expelled many handicaps.

It’s easy to fall in love with Buenos Aires. Its architecture rivals the best of Europe. The steaks pop one’s taste buds into Gourmet Heaven. The theatres rank among the world’s best. Its high-kicking tango classes and yoga in the park secure one’s exercise routine. Its inexpensive public transportation serves as a model for other metropolitans. When it came time for me to depart Buenos Aires and return to my home, readily I shouted, “Yo te amo!” Yes, I loved the city’s design, food, and culture. However even more, I loved its people. The heroes of CILSA showed me strength in adversity, friendship to all, and a winning spirit of Buenos Aires that will forever remain with me.

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