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Teen with spina bifida doesn’t let disability hold back a dream

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Arturo Vargas is reaching his dream of playing basketball.

The 16-year-old Volcano Vista High School student has built his path to success one small step at time, even though he measures the distance on his handcycle or his wheelchair.

Vargas says he doesn’t let spina bifida, a disability of the spinal cord and backbone, keep him from his accomplishments.

Someday he hopes to win a basketball scholarship, he says.

Arturo Vargas, 16, rides his handcycle with the Zia Freewheelers, a cycle team the Carrie Tingley Hospital Foundation helps support. Last year, Vargas rode 50 miles for a charity event. (Photo courtesy Carrie Tingley Hospital Foundation)

Arturo Vargas, 16, rides his handcycle with the Zia Freewheelers, a cycle team the Carrie Tingley Hospital Foundation helps support. Last year, Vargas rode 50 miles for a charity event. (Photo courtesy Carrie Tingley Hospital Foundation)

“I don’t think of it as a disability,” Vargas explains. “I use it to my advantage. I know my weaknesses and strengths. I have to figure out different ways to do things, but it makes us stronger people, you know?”

Recently his team, the New Mexico Rolling Lobos, trounced another winning high school team, when those players got into wheelchairs on the basketball court: “They get in a wheelchair and it’s completely different. We ended up whooping them.”

Along with basketball, Vargas is part of the Zia Freewheelers, a team of cyclists who adapt their available strengths to pedaling along the Rio Grande. When he started five years ago, he managed 10 miles on his handcycle. Last year he completed 50 miles for a charity race.

Vargas is one of the kids that the Carrie Tingley Hospital Foundation has helped shine with adaptive equipment and through program support for the past 50 years of its existence. Executive director Jeff Hoehn says the goal as the foundation goes forward is to help more children like Vargas succeed.

“We have been here for children with special needs and their families for 50 years. Our goal is to serve more children each year than the year before,” he says, adding that each year the foundation serves about 500 families directly and supports quality of life for about 5,000 families through the state with its initiatives.

Along with helping families directly, the foundation buys therapeutic equipment for Carrie Tingley Hospital, which last year marked its 75th anniversary. The hospital provides health care to children and adolescents with complex musculoskeletal and orthopedic conditions, rehabilitation needs, developmental issues and long-term physical disabilities.

The foundation also steps up when families leave the hospital, helping with shower stalls, ramps and wheelchair lifts for vehicles, Hoehn says. “Access is always an issue for anyone with a disability.”

The foundation also offers programs like its annual summer Wheelchair Sports Camp and by supporting programs like the Zia Freewheelers with loaner bikes and bikes for individuals.

“We want to give these kids an opportunity to do what other kids do,” he explains.

Scott Hubbard, an Albuquerque Public Schools physical therapist, volunteers to coach the cycle team. He says the foundation’s help to families with bikes and other gear like helmets and gloves is a substantial contribution. “The absolute cheapest adaptive bike is about $1,500,” he says, adding that bikes can cost as much as $5,000. “But for many families, this can be life changing. We see amazing increases in abilities.”

Vargas’ dad, Charlie Lopez, also volunteers on the cycling team and says he appreciates all the support the foundation has shown to his son and others.

Lopez says the team has given his family the ability to go for a bike ride on Sundays, an activity they can enjoy together.

“It’s so neat to watch them do things that other kids do, that other kids take for granted and don’t even understand is a luxury,” Lopez says. “We are so fortunate through Scott Hubbard. Now we can go on family rides.”

Lopez says he also enjoyed watching his son play basketball with a team of high school kids who could run and jump on their legs, but had difficulty adjusting when they had to play the game from a wheelchair: “The other team just couldn’t keep up. You could see the respect between the groups. The other team had a new appreciation for the kids with disabilities.”

He says younger kids who come to the cycling team for the first time find a role model in his son. “He’s always showing kids they can go out and do something new. Arturo doesn’t see himself as disabled. He just goes out and rides. He just pedals with his hands and not his feet. It’s good our society is beginning to see the value and need for creating programs for folks for disabilities.”

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