Metal wheelchairs colliding, balls gliding, and players falling -- sounds like some hybrid between bumper cars and football. It’s wheelchair rugby. These players who served and sacrificed their limbs for their country now play with more intensity than the best professional athletes. They are wounded soldiers brought together by ArcAngeles, a non-governmental organization (NGO). ArcAngeles' President Juan Pablo Salazar, a former International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) participant and member of the Michigan Wheelchair Rugby team, started the NGO as a means to provide opportunities for those with disabilities through sports. The organization helps wounded warriors and others channel their athletic skills into nationwide successes as wheelchair athletes.
On August 12, 2013, some of these athletes played for Secretary Kerry in his first visit to Colombia. The Secretary watched their match and played some sitting volleyball to recognize and honor their service and sacrifice for their country. As a veteran himself, Secretary Kerry said, "What I’ve learned is there are no limits, everything is possible. And you can be an amazing inspiration to so many people about how they can deal with either an accident or one of the things that happen in life…people can turn it into something very positive and become an inspiration to millions of people."
This particular story of positive transformation represents a collaboration among the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, and Colombia’s National Government Department of Sports (Coldeportes). This organization uses sports as a means of inclusion for vulnerable communities, which have included disabled, displaced, demobilized people, ethnic minorities, and a special emphasis on wounded warriors.
This story also represents the efforts of civil society leaders. ArcAngeles and their partners are not only providing services in Colombia but also have begun to expand to other countries, such as Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay, and Paraguay. This truly remarkable organization represents the transformation that has occurred in Colombia, and Colombia has become a model for the entire region. As Secretary Kerry noted in his press conference with Minister of Foreign Affairs María Ángela Holguín Cuéllar, "I was never able to visit Bogotá before, but I am so happy to now say that I have visited such a beautiful city in a country that has an incredible story to tell the world about transformation."
Colombia stands poised to capitalize on its hard-fought gains, and Secretary Kerry’s visit was a congratulation to the people of Colombia who have joined in an amazing transformation. At the Casa de Nariño, Secretary Kerry summed up Colombia’s transformation well by saying, “This is one of the great stories not just of this hemisphere, but really of the world, where we see so many governments that are challenged today, some of whom are failing and some that have already failed. Colombia is a success story, and the United States of America is proud of whatever part we’ve been able to share with our friends in an effort to get where we are and to where we are going."
As someone who works at the U.S. Mission in Colombia, I look forward to seeing how the United States and Colombia move forward together, strengthening their strong partnership that brings constructive approaches to resolving global issues.