By Emma Burns, Winfield Resident

“I am inspired by the courage of these men and women to overcome their challenges,” remarks North Scottsdale resident Frank Cali in speaking about a weekly veterans pickleball program at the Desert Ridge Marriott he has been leading.

Two years ago, Army veteran Cali noticed a poster on the wall of a Phoenix Veterans Medical Center waiting room. The striking poster featured a variety of sport activities highlighting “The Adaptive Sports Program.” Cali, who is a certified pickleball instructor and disable vet, was curious. Was pickleball included?

After contacting Johanna Avilez, coordinator of the VA program, and getting her endorsement for the inclusion of pickleball in the program, the Winfield vet went to work. First on the list was locating a free pickleball venue. Brian Thorfinnson, the Desert Ridge Marriott Director of Tennis, didn’t hesitate and offered a court every Thursday morning from 9-11 a.m. with the support of the entire management team. Rob Barnes, Director of Marketing at Selkirk Sports, a family-owned Idaho manufacturer of pickleball paddles, donated a dozen high performance paddles for the veteran’s group. Fellow local “pickler” friends provided the balls.

Cali’s credentials from the International Pickleball Teaching Professional Association qualifies him to teach the rapidly growing sport for the Adaptive Sports Program. Local veterans were contacted by the VA and Cali was ready to begin except for one important teaching tool, a ball machine. Friend and fellow pickleball enthusiast Jay Kaplan, a Whisper Rock resident, stepped forward and purchased a ball machine. This equipment greatly enhanced the learning experience for the vet.

The Vets began to arrive for the first six-week segment from all over the valley. One disabled veteran rides seven buses beginning at 6 a.m. to attend Cali’s pickleball instruction. Many of the vets suffer from PTSD and were wounded during their enlistment. Some arrive in braces, others in wheelchairs, and many have had numerous surgeries. All came to learn and play. To date, nearly 80 area veterans have participated, many returning for every session.

The pickleball program recently completed its fourth six-week segment with four courts of veterans learning the game at the Marriott’s sports complex. As the program expanded, Cali enlisted the help of fellow Winfield picklers Dave Boze, Bob Moore and Marshall Sussman. The next segment is scheduled for mid-fall.
In addition to offering local sports to veterans, the Adaptive Sports Program sponsors a yearly veterans’ event called the “National Senior Golden Age Games.” Last summer pickleball was included for the first time. The event took place in Anchorage, Alaska. Veterans interested in participating have their transportation costs covered by ASGP.

The ASP is facilitated and managed by the National Veterans Sports Programs and Special Events Office (NVSP&SE). The mission of the NVSP&SE office is to provide opportunities for Veterans to improve their independence, well-being, and quality of life through adaptive sports and therapeutic arts programs.

If you or a loved one is a veteran and have an interest in joining any of the sports sponsored programs of ASGP, you can contact Avilez at 602-277-5551 ext. 7250 at the Phoenix VA. Cali and his team of picklers will be there to introduce you to pickleball.