interview: Tom Iselin
Executive Director, Sun Valley Adaptive Sports / United States
Tom Iselin is the Executive Director of an Idaho-based program that uses sports and recreation as healing and therapy for people with disabilities, including service members who have been severely wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
To use sports and recreation as healing and therapy to enrich the lives of people with disabilities. We serve children, teens, and adults with physical and cognitive disabilities, and service members who’ve been severely wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We provide programs that help participants develop the physical skills and confidence they need to enjoy all types of sports and recreational activities. In the process, they also develop the life skills, hope, and inspiration they need to interact or reorient themselves with family, peers, and their community.
It was founded in 1999 by a group of local residents who had a passion for teaching skiing to people with disabilities. However, in the summer of 2005, the founder quit and left the organization in shambles. In fall 2005, the organization rebuilt itself from the ground up: New mission, new board, new operational structures, new programming—the works. I think the only thing we kept was the name.
It was all quite serendipitous. I had recently left my position from a hunger relief organization I founded in order to launch a new nonprofit with a mission to rescue troubled nonprofits.
A week later, I received a random call from a friend who is a trustee of a major foundation. He said, “I’m connected with an organization in Sun Valley that uses sports as therapy to help people with disabilities. The founder quit. They’re in trouble and I think you can help.”
Two days later, I met two board members and we hit it off like old friends. I started a month later. I was excited to get involved because many my personal experiences ran parallel with organization’s purpose. I played and coached competitive sports, dated a paraplegic in my 30’s, had a cousin with cognitive disability, and my father was wounded while serving in the Korean War.
The opportunity turned out to be a perfect fit and fateful blessing.
No. I used to be stock options trader on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Back then, life was all about “me.” At age 27, I wrote a pioneering software program to manage traders’ risk and I had successfully traded through Crash of 87’.
I was driving in the fast lane living the high life. Then a near death experience with cocaine almost took my life. I got clean, hung up my trading jacket, and made a commitment to spending the rest of my life serving others.
That was 20 years ago. I’m now a social entrepreneur and am always looking for ways to start, grow, or rescue nonprofits. Motto: “I want the equity in my life to be measured not by the change in my bank account, but by the “change” I make in the lives of others.
Because quality NGO work has an entrepreneurial spirit and effectiveness that big business and stoic government cannot duplicate. NGOs are the window cleaners of the world, doing jobs no one else wants to do.
Though dormant in some, I believe every person, by nature, has a desire to do good. NGOs provide venues for people to channel their gifts, skills, influence, and wealth toward a directed purpose that can make lasting, effective change.
Without NGOs, we’d be stuck in a bureaucratic world talking too much and doing too little—too late.
My grandparents, Willard and Georgia Iselin. They remain the most selfless, giving people I’ve ever met. They were good Midwestern folks. They worked hard, saved money, gave back to their community, and spoiled their grandchildren with love and kindness.
They lived the values they believed. They were wise and humble. They listened. They did not judge. They we’re even encouraging and loving when I’d show up to their house in the 70’s with a mop hairdo, cranking Led Zeppelin. God bless em’!
- Jesus Christ. Whether you believe in Christianity or not, Jesus has been a model of selfless leadership for centuries. He was gracious, merciful, humble, and was always on the lookout to help the sick, poor, hungry, and those in need. He cared deeply about the environment and stood up for injustice. Jesus despised pride and greed and those who valued money, power, or themselves over helping others. The New Testament lists dozens of references of selfless acts Jesus did to help others, even when his life was at risk. Jesus himself established his declaration of service when he said, “I came to serve, not to be served.” His service declaration to us is, “For you have been called to live in freedom—not freedom to satisfy your selfish nature, but freedom to serve one another in love.” These are wise words for today’s world.
- Stuart Briscoe. He dedicated his life to helping others and serving those in need through his church and humanitarian work. His work, leadership, and influence have touched the lives of millions of people in dozens of countries. It’s astounding, really. He’s one person who walks the talk and the legacy he’ll leave is immeasurable.
- George Schaefer. He’s been a livelong public servant and made revolutionary changes at the National Parks Service as well as at the Department of Defense. Everybody loves George. He has a jolly way about him and he’s always willing to go the extra mile to help someone in need. George never expects a thank you or a pat of gratitude; he does his work because it’s his nature to help others and make the world a better place. Anyone who meets George walks with a little more spunk in their step after they leave him.
To build a large-scale sports and recreation center in Sun Valley for people with physical and cognitive disabilities. The purpose of the center would be to use sports and recreation as a place for therapy, healing, restoration, and coping. It would also be a center for Special Olympics and Paralympics training and competition.
The center would offer sports such as skiing, snowboarding, Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, ice skating, paragliding, fly fishing, kayaking, whitewater rafting, hiking, rock climb, cycling, mountain bike riding, golfing, tennis, and a variety of arts and crafts activities.
The center would be compound structure complete with short-term and long-term housing. It would have a spa-like atmosphere and include things such as therapeutic massage for people with paralysis, meditation techniques for children with Down Syndrome, stress management therapy for wounded warriors, and a four-star cafeteria serving healthful food.
Staff, therapists, and instructors would be experts in the respective fields. They would conduct research and share it freely with other therapists and interested organizations around the world. The center would host frequent conferences and educational seminars.
The center would be funded by donors and foundations passionate to make lasting change in the lives of those who attended, and to improve the various industries serving people with physical and cognitive disabilities.
Designing and operating therapeutic sports camps for wounded warriors that have a lasting, meaningful, and therapeutic impact on their lives. Many sport camps for wounded warriors are nothing more than vacations. They have their place, but I’m proud to say we’re working hard to set the standards bar high for authentic sports therapy.
- The lasting, personal impact we make on every wounded warrior—and their significant others—who attend our camps. Yes, we help them learn how to ski or fly fish again. But we do so much more. We spend time to learn about their personal dreams and aspirations and help make those come true once they leave. We stay connected with warriors for years. We’ll help them find a job, get into school, locate a mortgage broker, or find a marriage counselor. We’ll do whatever it takes to help them succeed in life. As one warrior said of our program, “SVAS epitomizes the phrase ‘No man left behind!’”
- The depth of the staff culture. We’re family. We take the time and make the effort to learn and care about each other. We share personal issues about our lives and we listen to others without judgment. We share the good, bad, and ugly. It may be about a family member with cancer, a break-up of a boyfriend, or daughter with a drug problem. Our bond is powerful which is why we work so well together. It’s something very special and we treasure it. In fact, when hiring new staff, even summer interns, the number one question we ask ourselves is, “How would the candidate fit into our culture.”
- The quality of our back office operations. Most people see the outside of an organization. They see the programs and their impact. This is great. However, what most people never see are the thousands of little details, procedures, and work that go on in the background to make programs and operations run smoothly. I wish more people looked under the hood of Sun Valley Adaptive Sports. They would see a well-oiled, polished engine, purring. From bookkeeping to fundraising, to program management and database management, they would see some of the most elaborate systems imaginable to handle massive amounts of capacity with minimal effort.
Yes and No. Yes, as it relates to sports for people with physical and cognitive disabilities such as those participating in Paralympics and Special Olympics.
But “No” when it comes to their lives away from sports. People with disabilities (and their families) face extremely difficult everyday challenges: finances, health care, work, school, transportation, relationships, isolation, and depression.
It’s touching to volunteer for a day and cheer a Special Olympian across a finish line, but we must remember they need our help and encouragement to finish strong and win gold every day.
The media also does a poor job of telling the good stories of the returning wounded. Yes, war is hell. Too many young men and women died and too many more returned home wounded. Fortunately, there is more technology and resources available than ever before to help heal and restore the wounded. It’s a sad commentary on society and the media that negative stories sell more papers than positive ones.
To expand programming. We added another therapist to increase capacity so we can offer more therapeutic components to our programs. We also bought new adaptive sports equipment and technology so people with various types of disabilities can try various types of sports that they would not have been able to try otherwise. A large portion of the funds will help us increase capacity so we can double the number of wounded warriors we’re serving now.
Yes! Our increased capacity has allowed us provide more therapy to more participants than ever before. There is also a ripple effect taking place. We’re now sharing our best practices and experiences with other adaptive organizations, military hospitals, and organizations serving people with disabilities. This means our work in Sun Valley is helping to improve the quality of an entire industry. What could be better?
$1.1 million. First, expand programming capacity to help more service men and women who have been severely disabled in Iraq and Afghanistan. Next, hire more therapists because it’s crucial to have qualified therapists on staff to handle various types of severe disabilities. Third, buy more adaptive sports equipment, so we can provide more opportunities to a wider range of disabilities.
- Staffing. Many people with disabilities require specialized one-on-one attention. This requires trained staff. We have a stable of trained volunteers, but it’s often difficult to get enough volunteers for the times we need. Interns work well, but they are short-term and we spend a lot of time training them for the short time they work with us. For us, the best solution would be hiring high-quality, career therapists who can provide tremendous value. The downside is cost. We can hire 15 interns for the price of one tenured therapist. As is the case in most nonprofits, staffing is a funding dilemma.
- Committed volunteers. We have a database of 240 volunteers. That’s the good news. However we’re located in a resort community of 20,000 residents and compete with 150 other nonprofits for volunteers and donors. Even more challenging is the fact that many residents live in the area part-time and travel frequently. There a lot of people committed to our mission; I only wish we could get more to volunteer on a regular basis.
- Turning away qualified participants. More than 30,000 men and women have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan wounded. Half of those are severely wounded. We serve less than 100 warriors a year. The problem? We received 300-400 inquires a year. This means I often have to call a 20-year-old soldier who’s had both legs blown off and tell him—or his wife—that he cannot attend because our events are full. It’s heartbreaking.
Explore came to film a fly-fishing camp we were hosting for wounded warriors with traumatic brain injuries. I thought most of their time would be spent filming. They certainly did a lot of that, but what surprised me most was the crew’s willingness to immerse themselves into the event.
The crew and warriors became instant friends. The crew wanted to participate in all aspects of the camp from early morning to late night. They even participated in therapy sessions along with the warriors. The explore crew was so helpful and integrated we started referring to the crew as “staff.”
Explore’s involvement was a tremendous benefit to the overall therapy of the event. It was also very therapeutic for the explore crew. Each crew member told me it was life-changing experience and I don’t recall a dry eye among them when they said goodbye to their new warrior friends.
Absolutely! We want people to see and experience what we do firsthand. Words, photos, and DVDs are useful, but they’re no substitute for a firsthand experience such as skiing with deaf and blind children, cheering a Special Olympian, fly fishing with warrior in a wheelchair, watching a teen with autism learn to rock climb, Nordic skiing with a guy with no legs, or helping a wife of a soldier cope with depression. Once someone experiences what we do, they’re motivated to get involved. It’s quite contagious.
It’s the cornerstone of deep joy. People seek joy and happiness in their lives, and I’ve always found selfless people to be joyful. I believe we struggle with selflessness because society rewards selfish acts of “I”, “me,” and “mine.” We’ve become a society of takers. If we hurt someone or damage something in the process, we trivialize the impact and say, “Oh, well. Too bad.”
If the world is going to pull itself out of its doldrums, it’s going to need collective acts of selfless service by selfless people: compassion, generosity, sensitivity, kindness, charity, and love. Think of selflessness this way . . . we’re all neighbors, but are we acting neighborly?
I would transform all the prideful hearts of the world into hearts of humility. Pride, in one of its many manifestations, is at the root of every major problem facing the world. Pride is the world’s plague and if we don’t find a cure, the sickness will destroy the planet. This requires a God-sized transformation that must first start by acknowledging the types of pride in our own hearts and then replacing pride with humility and service.
Uncontrollable pride and greed. The world’s fuel is now pleonexia. This is the Greek term for, “The insatiable desire for more.” We’ve become a world more concerned about what pleases than what sustains.
We’re convinced to buy things we don’t need but want and we’re willing to risk bankruptcy and broken relationships to get it. We must, absolutely must, find ways to curtail our prideful and greedy ways and do what’s right, not what’s convenient—or profitable.
I would explore the issue of how to help young men and women who’ve been severely wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan reintegrate into their home communities. The lives and families of the wounded are turned upside down: work, school, health, parenting, relationships, and confidence.
I would like to explore ways to develop systems that would ensure wounded warriors can transition back into civilian or military life in a way that feels “normal” and secure for them.
- 10 years. Economic stability. The downward spiral of the world’s economies will continue unless businesses and governments around the globe adopt core values (honesty, trust, selflessness, peace, collaboration, etc) into business models and policies that sustain people, business, society, and the environment. Again, the world must get serious about doing what’s right, not what’s convenient or profitable.
- 25 years. Ecological sustainability. This has its roots in population, education, and consumption. If we can’t get a handle on these things, we’ll gobble up our natural resources—and ourselves. We need to exhibit self-control and discipline, and we need to provide incentives to the best minds in the world to find solutions. Once we have practical solutions, we’ll need passionate leaders who can motivate billions of people to adopt lifestyle changes.
- 50 years. Technology abuse. Technology will be the savior or Satan of this century. If it’s going to be our savior, then we must find solutions to manage the ethics of technology. Otherwise, we’re going to open a Pandora ’s Box of bombs, bacteria, viruses, clones, robots, and nanoprocessors that will destroy civilization. When talking about new technological developments, the conversation should not be about what we can develop; rather, it should be about what we ought to develop.
- Be happy in your own skin. Happiness starts on the inside. We’re all flawed and scared, so forgive yourself and others and then get help if you need it—or get over it. Remember, happiness does not depend on happenings, because if your happenings don’t happen the way you want them to happen, you’ll be unhappy. True happiness is joy. Joy comes from stoking a furnace of core values: love, peace, patience, kindness, compassion, and self-control. Once the embers are burning, it’s important persevere and stand firm when times are tough. One more thing: Smile more!
- Take care of your health. Find the time and make the effort to eat well, exercise, rest, play, pray, and work. Sprinkle in some adventure and funny movies. Find a low stress way to balance it all. No rocket science required, just discipline.
- Establish and nurture healthy relationships. I can’t think of anything that widens my smile more than my friends, family, and the most beautiful woman on planet—my sweetheart. If you’re in an abusive relationship, get out. If you’ve suffered an abusive relationship, get help. There are too many wonderful people out there who will love you for who you are (baggage and all). Be patient for the love of your life and then nurture and cherish it once you find it.
- Serve others. This starts with having a clear sense of knowing how you can help others by directing your gifts, skills, time, and resources. Nothing makes me happier than when I’m working hard and making sacrifices to help others in need, or help others achieve their goals and aspirations. Tolstoy said, “Life is a place of service. Joy can be real only if people look upon their life as a service and have a definite object in life outside themselves and their personal happiness.” Sage advice to live by.
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