Sunday, September 26, 2010

In West Virginia, wheelchair user becomes Heritage Trail ambassador

From the Wheeling News-Register:

WHEELING, W. Va. - Virginia Whipkey (pictured) proves that Wheeling's Heritage Trail does not belong just to those who can walk.

Though she is a wheelchair user, her handicap did not prevent the Warwood resident of 62 years from becoming the city's 41st trail ambassador.

Ever since the trail opened in Warwood, Whipkey has enjoyed walking her dogs, Neka and Bruiser, there. Over time, she grew to love the stretch of trail running near her apartment, utilizing the convenient and easily accessible entrance just behind Warwood Middle School.

When the trail ambassador program started to become a reality, recruiting volunteers to welcome and monitor trail users and inform city officials of any potential problems, she heard about it from her friend Leslie Ashby.

While attending the Wheeling Vintage Raceboat Regatta at Heritage Port over Labor Day weekend, Whipkey met R. "Scat" Scatterday, manager and project engineer for the Wheeling-Ohio County Rails to Trails, and learned all about the program. From that moment, she was hooked.

"This is something I'd like to do," she said. "One day, my friend told me about it and that's when I decided to do it."

"I told her about it, we went to the meeting and here she is," added Ashby, a fellow trail ambassador.

In the 1980s, Whipkey endured a series of seven back surgeries that had crippling effects and left her unable to walk. Despite having developed a disability, she would not be held back from going outside and continuing to enjoy life.

"Her handicap doesn't limit her from being part of this program, and that's the message for everyone," Scatterday said. "There's no reason she doesn't qualify to be a trail ambassador."

"I hope by being out here, I can give hope to other handicapped people that they can still be active," Whipkey said.

"Sometimes, people with handicaps feel worthless, and the trail ambassador program gives them power," added Ashby.

Scatterday noted the ambassadors take pride and ownership in the trail and this program allows them to be involved with not only the trails, but also the city and region.

Though the program has been in place for only a short time, Ashby and Whipkey already started work to clean up the trail. Aside from reporting hot spots for litter, they have reported questionable behavior by a fisherman and other suspicious persons to authorities.

According to Scatterday, dog waste also has nearly disappeared in the area since ambassador patrols began scouting the Warwood trail section.

"The only down side is that if you get too close to Virginia, she runs over your toes," Scatterday joked, emphasizing that Whipkey's disability is outweighed by her dedication.

Whipkey shares the same motivation as about 60 others who joined the program. Scatterday said the volunteer program was one born from necessity due to the increase in total miles of trail from 16 to 30. Though he only expected to gain the help of 20-25 members of the community, he now expects to see more than 100 volunteers join Whipkey.