Student support specialists volunteer during National Veterans Wheelchair Games.

Sometimes the opportunity to help
out can be right before your eyes.

Or just down the block.

The student advisors and enrollment counselors who work at Saint Leo's Center for Online Learning Student Support Center in downtown Tampa consider themselves "helpers."

Every day, they assist prospective and current students enrolled in the university's online degree programs by providing information, answering questions, offering advice, and sometimes by just lending a caring ear.

Given Saint Leo University's 40-year history of providing educational benefits to members of the U.S. Armed Forces, very often those students are active military or veteran students.

So when the 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games brought nearly 650 athletes to the Tampa Convention Center, which is just down the block from the Center for Online Learning student support offices  – and the event's sponsors were looking for volunteers to help everything flow smoothly –Kerry Carter naturally jumped on the opportunity.

Kerry sits on Saint Leo's 40th anniversary committee that is spearheading the university's year-long celebration of its proud education partnership with the military.

"And since this was an opportunity to help serve our veterans in our own backyard, it was an ideal opportunity to give back," he said.

Kinship with veterans prompts desire to volunteer.

Kerry is a disabled veteran, himself, who served for six years with the U.S. Navy's Submarine Force, including a period as a missile technician aboard a nuclear-powered Trident submarine. His military experience serves him well today in his position as one of Saint Leo's VA certifying officials – a liaison with the Veterans Administration who guides veteran students through the process of applying for military education benefits.

"I feel a special kinship with the students I work with," said Kerry. "I understand what they have gone through and are continuing to go through, regardless of their branch of service."

It was that same kinship that prompted Kerry to take the leadership role as volunteer coordinator for the event, lining up volunteers' work schedules with event needs.

Presented by the Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Veterans Wheelchair Games take place each year in a different location around the country and is touted as the largest annual wheelchair sports event in the world.

The weeklong competition features military veterans who use wheelchairs for sports competition due to cord injuries, amputations, certain neurological conditions or other mobility impairments. They compete in sports ranging from power soccer, basketball, and weightlifting to quad rugby, archery and table tennis.

"With 'Community' as one of our organizational goals, we have an obligation to be a tangible example of this ideal, which embraces diversity and working together," said Shadel Hamilton, director of Undergraduate Student Services.

"When presented with the opportunity to volunteer at this year's Veteran Wheelchair games, we were ecstatic. Our employees all share a sense of community and were proud to have a chance to give back to a group of athletes who have given so much of themselves to our country."

Giving support, receiving inspiration.

Kerry led a team of six employees who proudly donned green Saint Leo tee-shirts and spent the day breaking down equipment after events were over, handing out water and towels to athletes, and joining in the applause during awards ceremonies.

In addition to Kerry, other volunteers were: Erin Bly, student life specialist; Leslie Ramirez, Eric Lawrence and Eric Lye, enrollment counselors; and Jessica Stafford and Kristy Mitchell, student advisors.

"I volunteered because I was an athlete in college, and I know how much the encouragement can mean when you're competing," said Erin Bly, who supports online clubs and organizations, as well as other student services initiatives. "Plus, a lot of vets attend Saint Leo. They're part of our community and they need to know we support them."

"Volunteering for this event was important to me because there are veterans in my family," said Jessica Stafford, who advises active military students enrolled in Saint Leo's associate program in liberal arts and bachelor's program in health care management.

"Watching these athletes compete without the use of their legs and with such tremendous upper body strength was inspiring. It really puts things in perspective. It's so easy to complain about the little things that might go wrong in a day or about the challenges we face as students during a term.

"Yet, look at the amazing things these vets can do. They're inspiring!"

How have Saint Leo's student support specialists helped you?

Image Credit: bknabel and Erin Bly

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