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She didn’t let her disability get in the way of playing sports. Now she helps others.

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In just 11 years, Ashley Thomas, who was born with spina bifida, went from wanting to play sports to launching a nonprofit that helps people with physical disabilities participate in everything from wheelchair basketball to archery. Thomas, who landed a spot on the U.S. Paralympics kayaking team and runs Bridge II Sports in the Triangle, shares her journey.

Q: Why did you start Bridge II Sports in 2007?

A: I had been volunteering at Duke Children’s Hospital, and I met all these kids who had no hope for a future and parents who only heard what the medical protocol was. I said, “We have to shift this.” Just because your legs don’t work, just because you’re missing a limb, doesn’t mean you’re not capable. However, if you don’t get opportunity to explore this, you will be disabled for life. That’s really how it all started.

Q: What is your personal connection with this?

A: I was born with spina bifida and went through what typically happens with children born with disabilities: You have surgeries, and the medical community has a very low expectation of outcome. My parents were told, “She will never speak; she will never walk; she will basically be a vegetable.” I always tell that story because when I talk with parents, my question is, “What is your expectation?” Because you will guide this much better than medical (staff) can. Often with disabilities, they don’t know what the outcomes are; they set a low standard. For me, I had a desire to play sports, be a cheerleader, but I just didn’t have the leg coordination to do any of those things.

Q: You established a handicap-accessible dock at Lake Crabtree County Park in Morrisville, earning you recognition from the Women of Western Wake group. How did that project come about?

A: With disabilities and missing limbs, water sports are high risk. We kept getting people saying, “We want to kayak.” When I was competing, there was no access. I would have to find people to help me. We’ve worked with the park folks since 2011. It was a long process. Duke Energy and MetLife put money in to help build it, help get all the boats out there, the adaptive equipment. We have about $15,000 to $20,000 of adaptions out there. The best part is I get emails and Facebook posts that say, “My husband, who’s a paraplegic, and our daughter and I went out kayaking together.” We have seniors out there using the docks because it’s so easy.

What I really want the community and the world at large to see ... is creating access is about (including) a group of people that aren’t as strong as the strongest. And that’s what we forget often — not the athletes — but just the people who want to recreate with the family. When we make something available for the weakest group, we’ve also made it available for the strongest. We’ve got something for everybody.

Q: In 2013, Bridge II Sports became the host for the Southeast Valor Games, a three-day competition for military-injured. How did that come about?

A: We had veterans in our program organically because the war had happened, and by 2010 a lot of people were back in their own communities with nothing. We had wheelchair basketball, we had air rifle, bocce; we had things happening. And we’d sent members to the Paralympics. In 2012, I got a call from Washington, and a gentleman said, “We’d like you to consider hosting the Valor Games.” They had done a pilot in Chicago, and they wanted to do four regionals. We had 30 days to come up with a plan.

Q: How do UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State and Duke consistently help your program?

A: In the world of adaptive sports you need engineers. The universities have been very helpful in creating things; they gave the wind and the fuel behind Valor Games Southeast. We’ve just been so fortunate. Here in the Triangle, we have so much. Historically, the Triangle has been very philanthropically minded to give back.

Q: How many people do you serve on a regular basis?

A: Between 100 and 125. It might not sound like a big number, but we do quality work and goal-setting. Ninety-two percent of our kids go on to college and tech school to get jobs. Our big thing is, disability doesn’t determine outcome. Opportunities do.

Know someone who would make a good Tar Heel of the Week? Send nominations to tarheel@newsobserver.com.

Ashley Thomas - Tar Heel of the Week

Born: April 9, 1962

Residence: Hillsborough

Family: Three children

Organization: Bridge II Sports, bridge2sports.org

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