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Maria Besta: Passionate about the abilities of people with disabilities

This week we’re shining the spotlight on Mary Free Bed’s Wheelchair & Adaptive Sports Program manager, Maria Besta. Maria was recognized as a YWCA Tribute Award winner for her extraordinary efforts to strengthen our community. For those of you who have the privilege of knowing Maria, or working with Maria, you understand how truly deserved this honor is. Below is an excerpt from Maria’s Tribute nomination. 

Some people have the great fortune to discern early in life what they are born to do and then proceed – with aplomb. Maria Besta is such a person. She is a wife, the mother of twin boys, a certified recreational therapist and the first manager of the Wheelchair & Adaptive Sports Program at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital. The roles easily meld into one another – yet another sign of living a calling.

Maria makes it possible for people with disabilities to return to sports they love, or to try new ones. She produces real art – hundreds of smiles, thousands of embraces, enthusiastic high fives, and the unbridled joy as people with disabilities discover they can do much more than they dreamed possible. Maria Besta creates masterpieces. She helps people paint new lives.

Maria’s leadership is an intersection of vision, passion, and perseverance. She first became interested in helping others with disabilities when she witnessed a school bus driver who was not “kind enough” to special needs students. Maria decided to pursue a career in recreational therapy and became president of the Therapeutic Recreation Club at Grand Valley State University. As she dedicated her life to the disabled community, Maria’s leadership roles grew. For the past nine years, she was the director of the Grand Rapids Wheelchair Sports Association (GRWSA). During that time, the program doubled the number of sports offered from four to eight. Maria started four new teams including quad rugby, handcycling, adult sled hockey and a wheelchair softball program. The number of people served mushroomed from 150 to 250 adults and children. Under Maria’s guidance, GRWSA became the biggest program of its kind in Michigan and one of the largest in the United States.

Described by a fellow recreational therapist as “total action,” Maria is known for her problem solving from finding community court times for practices, to recruiting new players for the growing number of teams, to creating fundraising events to keep GRWSA viable. Roles blended when it dawned on Maria, an Italian cook, that she could host dinner parties for 20 guests at her home on weekends, with proceeds going to GRWSA.

Maria makes the impossible possible on personal levels, too. She believes everyone can play a sport – either for fun or for competition. She excels at recruiting players to “just give it a try.” Not everyone will be comfortable on the basketball court, but how about snow skiing, rugby, kayaking, or tennis? Maria then addresses individual-specific challenges such as how to keep a racquet in an athlete’s hand so that she can try tennis. Velcro straps or tape?

Maria’s enthusiasm springs from knowing that wheelchair and adaptive sports provide exponentially more benefits than exercise. Participation empowers people and offers teamwork, community, and friendship. As Maria is quick to say, “It’s so much more than sports.”

Stories abound about how wheelchair and adaptive sports have brought renewed hope and meaning to the lives of disabled persons and their families. Through the numerous programs and clinics, Maria helps athletes own their disability and move beyond it.

It takes only one trip to the Junior Wheelchair Sports Camp to realize the spark that’s ignited. Maria has been camp director since 1998, growing the week-long, summer program from 10 campers to 60, with an increasing number coming from out of state. It’s not only the kids who are energized, however. Many of the counselors are former campers who return to proudly serve as role models.

Maria was also asked to oversee the Mary Free Bed Guild program Bikes For The Rest of Us. Each spring, disabled children are given grants for specially outfitted bikes. Maria has increased the number of therapists and volunteers to serve the 90 children who make wheels spin in the Mary Free Bed parking ramp – some for the first time.

The pediatric program manager at Mary Free Bed says Maria is “passionate about the abilities of people with disabilities.” It’s that positive focus that lifts spirits and expands awareness and understanding in the general community. Maria is helping to change the face of disability. She’s showing the able-bodied population, that with the proper adaptations, the impossible becomes possible.

Maria’s vision for GRWSA was to become part of Mary Free Bed. She knew the program would grow and prosper at an accelerated rate as part of the Mary Free Bed family. Vision became reality in May 2012, and Maria became the first manager of the Wheelchair and Adaptive Sports Program at Mary Free Bed.

So, what’s the new vision? Maria wants to recruit more female athletes, so that there can be female leagues in addition to the present co-ed teams. She wants to start a women’s softball program. Maria is researching sports for the visually impaired that feature balls that beep or glow. She envisions adding scholarships and a nutrition program for athletes. Maria is especially excited about creating a Paralympics training program.

Maria’s involvement with wheelchair and adaptive sports emanates from her passion to help, but it is also driven by her strong sense of justice. Sports, in essence, become an equalizing factor. Through teams, individual sports, and clinics, persons with disabilities can have the same experiences as their able bodied peers and family.

The programs support all races, genders, and disability types. Maria empowers girls in particular by offering them experiences in sports typically dominated by males. Hockey, quad rugby, and basketball have co-ed teams. Maria believes equal opportunities provide dignity and pride. She works passionately to ensure everyone has access to these including those who would have financial trouble participating in a sport. Maria writes countless grant applications and organizes multiple fundraisers, which enable athletes to play and teams to travel to regional, national, and international competition. For many athletes, these are their first trips since becoming disabled.

Maria doesn’t stop at sports. She often mentors other married couples who are working their way through the challenges of a new disability. She also started a group for women over 40 called The Next Chapter. The purpose is to challenge themselves by tackling things they’ve never done before – like completing a 25K run, climbing sand dunes, or participate in activities such as hula hoop aerobics or flying yoga.

Mary Free Bed CEO Kent Riddle says simply, “Maria is tireless. We pay her to be here eight hours a day, but this is her life – her whole family is wrapped up in this.” Perhaps that’s why she is extraordinarily successful – her personal and professional lives are synchronized. Married for 14 years, Maria met her husband, Pat, six years after he was in a disabling accident. Pat not only helps Maria put on events, but he also is a wheelchair athlete. When he’s not playing, he coaches their twin sons in basketball.

The director of Mary Free Bed therapy services says, “Maria is an exceptional human being and has a unique ability to look into the heart of a person and understand who they are as a human.”

Maria’s calling is to improve the lives of those living with disabilities. But her humanity enhances us all.

Read more about Maria >

Filed under: Adaptive Sports

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