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'A SLICE OF HEAVEN' | Instructor celebrates Michigan wheelchair sports camp

Brad Dion has been coming to Mary Free Bed's Jr. Wheelchair Sports Camp for 29 years. The now-instructor was a camper first, so he knows what it means to kids.

ALLENDALE, Mich. — As campers at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital’s Junior Wheelchair Sports Camp gather around Brad Dion, he begins to go over some ground rules for a game of handball. He reminds the kids to play as a team and not hog the ball.

After that, it’s go time. A couple dozen wheelchairs all begin moving at once and the game is on. In the middle of the pack, you can hear Brad’s voice echoing through Grand Valley State University’s Fieldhouse Complex. He’s cheering on the kids as they compete. For Brad, this is what it’s all about.

“I love giving back, you know, and I love to give the kids the same experiences that I had,” Brad said.

Before Brad became an instructor at the camp, he was a camper. He's been coming for 29 years straight. He was born with cerebral palsy.

“Basically, the way I describe it to my kids at school when I teach is, it's like sending a text message. The brain is trying to send a text message to the rest of the body. But the message isn't fully getting to the body,” he explained.

Brad’s first time at this one-week summer camp came in 1993 when he was seven years old.

“When we moved here to Grand Rapids, my parents started to get me involved with Mary Free Bed and getting me involved with physical therapy, and really looking for programs to get me involved with and that's when we found out about Wheelchair Sports Camp,” he said.

“I was very nervous, because I didn't know what to expect. You know, when I kind of came in, my parents dropped me off. And as soon as I looked around, I saw kids just like me, I’m like okay, I might like this.”

Brad calls the camp “a slice of Heaven” for campers. He says they might be the only children at their respective schools with a different ability level, but when they’re at camp, they’re part of “the norm.”

“All of us instructors are in wheelchairs, and a lot of the volunteers are in chairs as well. And for them to be actually the norm and to see us all come together and form our own community, it’s a vacation for them, and they love it. They look forward to it every year.”

After seeing how much the camp meant to Brad as a kid, his whole family started getting involved as volunteers. His brother Chris has taken on a role at the camp that their father Bo held for many years before he passed away in 2021.

“It's been a bit of an emotional challenge to step into a role that my father had been a part of for nearly 20 years. And it's been difficult to see through his eyes without him actually being here and hearing his voice, guiding me through the process,” Chris said.

“But it's been also very rewarding to see that the camp has continued on to the next generation.”

Friday was the last day of camp for 2022, but both of the Dion brothers encourage people to get involved next year whether it’s as a camper, or a volunteer. You can find a list of the latest opportunities on Mary Free Bed's Wheelchair and Adaptive Sports website.

“You're going to find out you can do stuff that you had no idea you're even capable of doing before,” Brad said.

“[The campers are] already looking forward to next year because they've had the time of their life.”

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