"Absolutely, I'll be back."
Sports, Arts & Recreation of Chattanooga clearly brought its "A" game to Possum Creek again Saturday, despite a late-morning interruption for heavy rain.
The third Saturday in July annually is SPARC's water-sports day for people with various disabilities, and about 150 volunteers and participants showed up at the First Lutheran Church Camp for water skiing with adaptive equipment, tubing, kayaking or riding on personal watercraft or pontoon boats.
"It was fun. I'm glad it stopped raining," said 21-year-old William Toney from Ooltewah, who first skied at the 2005 SPARC event. He has cerebral palsy.
Brian Penny has been participating for 19 years. While waiting patiently until the afternoon for his turn on an adaptive ski, he said, "The camaraderie and the good folks," about why he eagerly returns year after year. Now a 27-year-old Hamilton County substitute teacher, Penny has not let his spina bifida keep him from an active lifestyle.
Along with his father, Martin Penny, Brian is on SPARC's board of directors.
One of his cycling buddies, another 27-year-old with spina bifida, is Brad Broesche of Cleveland, and Saturday was his first water-sports day.
"I joined SPARC about a month after they did this last year, so I've been looking forward to it," Broesche said. "It was fun."
His first ski run came soon after lunch — always a highlight.
"There was one part where they just let me go," Broesche said. "When we started I had two people holding on to me — one on each side — but by the end I was being pulled without anybody holding on."
Does he plan to return next July?
"Yes, absolutely," he said, beaming.
Another first-time skier was Emily Detre, a 15-year-old entering Heritage High School in Ringgold.
"Awesome!" she said of the skiing, which preceded rides on a Lakeshore Marina pontoon boat and a Tirade two-person tube.
"I think it's amazing what they do for these kids," said Detre's grandfather, Klaus Peucker of Sale Creek. "I really enjoyed coming here."
He and his wife spend a lot of time at North River YMCA, where they see SPARC official Debbie Hightower. Like so many others since the event started in 1992, they were lured to the water-sports event by her powers of persuasion.
"She is a force of nature, and we love her," Trudy Harper said of Hightower.
Harper is a Soddy-Daisy native who moved back five years ago after 29 years in Dallas. While still living in Texas, she and her husband, Roger Knipp, learned about the annual event near their lake home at Possum Creek and got deeply involved. For this one they had a family of volunteers from Franklin plus two men from different Dallas families staying at their home, and the Franklin family's Tennessee Tech graduate was back with his old fraternity brothers, continuing the work they began in school as a community service project.
Harper and Knipp also provided three boats for the day.
"This has meant more to me than any of my other volunteer activities," Harper said, "partly because of the good this does and because of the community of people we work with and for. I've made some really special friends through this event."
First-time boat providers Saturday were Charity and Stephen Garey, Lakeshore Marina owners since March 2015. They shut down rentals for the day and brought two pontoon boats, a Chaparral ski boat, two kayaks and three paddle boards to the church camp — and 10 volunteers, counting 12-year-old son Jake and customer Todd Schoonover, who owns the Chaparral.
"We were looking at ways to integrate special-needs people into our organization," Charity said, noting the Gareys' emphasis on education and promoting boating for the younger generation. General manager Glen Wolters told them about the SPARC event.
"It's just amazing to see how excited everybody here is and to see their passion," she said.
Randal and Priscilla Braker from Manchester have been making the hour-and-a-half drive to help for about 15 years, sparked by Randal's long engineering connection with SPARC president Jerry Hightower, Debbie's husband. Randal is the general manager of the Duck River Utility Commission in Tullahoma.
"Helping people makes us feel as good as it does them," he said. "Here it's rewarding to see how much fun they have — the smiles on their faces. I think I get even more out of it than they do. This is a great event."
Another Ooltewah resident with cerebral palsy, 36-year-old Gina Lackey, was back with her mother, Sharon Lackey, although earlier in the week it looked as if they might not be able to continue their 15-year tradition. Sharon's mother just had a hip replacement.
"When I told Gina last night we might get to come after all, there was no hesitation. She was ready," Sharon said. "Being able to experience things they wouldn't be able to do if not for SPARC and all the volunteers is just wonderful."
Grant money from U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, War Fighter Sports and Disabled Sports USA helps provide the experience, free to all participants. Sponsors included PepsiCo, Belk, Food City, Publix and Food Lion, and Al Kay came again from the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in Knoxville with his wife and daughter and a busload of equipment and barbecue prepared by Joe Thompson.
Hamilton County Emergency Medical Services, the Sale Creek Volunteer Fire Department and the Chattanooga Stars provided on-scene support.
Contact Ron Bush at email@example.com or 423-757-6291.