TAMPA, Fla. -
Trucks pass by the 7,500 sq. foot warehouse in Tampa everyday. From the outside, it looks like just another beige-colored surplus storage facility.
When the lights go on inside, however, the entire space turns red, white, and blue, filled with obstacle courses for the 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games.
It's just one of the many places across Tampa Bay that's subtly changing for 659 athletes in July. Though the city has hosted many high-profile sporting events, this one is a special challenge.
The NVWG is the largest annual event of its kind in the world, hosting veterans with spinal cord injuries, amputations, and other physical disabilities.
"In one word: huge," explained Local Host Coordinator Jeanene LaSure. "A lot of the buildings are older and weren't really designed for this many wheelchairs, 5 or 6 maybe on a daily basis, not 600."
The Tampa Convention Center is one of those buildings. TCC only has a handful of elevators that fit about 3 wheelchairs each, so they've had mechanics update their freight elevator to transport 20.
"How are we going to transport all these folks from ground level to our exhibit hall on the 3rd floor?" explained TCC Marketing Director Eric Blanc. "That process alone has been pretty arduous, dealing with the state, dealing with the manufacturer, dealing with all those entities that control those types of operations."
Similar updates are happening across town, such as filling in cracks in roads and sidewalks, and contracting extra wheelchair-accessible buses.
Much of the work is going on behind the scenes at Tampa International Airport. They've had to secure dozens of aisle chairs to move athletes from planes to wheelchairs, and alert connecting airports of the same.
"Our goal, at the end of the day, is that these folks who have done a lot for our country walk away feeling like they were appreciated," Blanc said.
There's still a lot of work to do, and the Veterans Administration is asking for 3,000 volunteers to help. They are still short by about 1,500.
Organizers admit they're asking Tampa Bay to work a little harder, but nothing like the sacrifice of the athletes on their way here.
"They have a reason to live. They come here for the camaraderie, the competition," LeSure said. "Overcoming obstacles that some of us take for granted on a day-to-day basis."
To register as a volunteer, visit the National Veterans Wheelchair Games at http://www.va.gov/opa/speceven/wcg/index.asp
Volunteer registration closes on June 15. The games are scheduled for July 13 to 18.
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