A Pirate's Look at Life

The Never Say Never Pirate Camp changes lives and exposes limb-different pirates to boating. Read about their experience and how we are all United By Water.
  • two adults in pirate shirts next to a young boy in a pirate shirt
“He’s a world champion, in our hearts and in life,” said Nick Stilwell, co-founder of the Never Say Never Foundation. Stilwell was presenting Gage Beavers (14), a baseball-obsessed pirate hailing from Reedsville, West Virginia, with a custom-engraved Blade Squad NSN Champion title belt at the 2018 NSN Pirate Camp party. “He’s the only kid ever to be [inducted into] the Blade Squad.”

Rightly so: Gage, who was born missing the tibia in his right leg and underwent an above-the-knee amputation when he was just 11 months old, is a gifted athlete and a trend-setting fundraiser. After receiving a life-changing running blade at the 2015 Pirate Camp, Beavers wanted to help others. So, in 2017, he began asking for donations—in lieu of birthday gifts—to purchase blades for his fellow swashbucklers. 

Beavers’ efforts snowballed, and he has now raised over $11,000 that, thanks to help from Stilwell and the NSN Foundation, is enabling six other pirates to run, swim and play on the beach—activities and environments that typical insurance-provided hydraulic prosthetics couldn’t mechanically support—using high-performance blades. 

But just as life-changing as running blades or 3D-printed hands are for their lucky recipients, the NSN Pirate Camp provides something precious for all attending pirates and their families: A chance to experience boating and the ocean among a supportive community of fun-loving, limb-different kids and adults.
  • a group of adults in pirate costumes with a young boy

In July 2008, Stilwell (35) survived a near-fatal car accident that cost him both legs but afforded him the chance to meet Regas Woods (38), a Team USA Track and Field Paralympic athlete and double above-the-knee amputee who fabricated Stilwell’s first set of prosthetic legs. While Stilwell’s path wasn’t mentally or physically easy, Woods helped him see that post-amputation life is an exciting and rewarding journey, so long as he committed to going under, over, around or through every mental and physical barrier separating him from his dreams. Stilwell, in turn, eventually asked Woods to help him help others.

The result was the NSN Foundation, which they formed in Ocala, Florida in 2009 with the goal of instilling limb-different children and young adults with positive attitudes and active lifestyles. Critically, the NSN Foundation also sought to help kids and young people press the limits of high-level adaptive sports by providing high-performance hardware that might otherwise be unobtainable.   

In a serendipitous twist, Brad Kendell (38), a lifelong fisherman, sailor, commercial-construction professional and double above-the-knee amputee hailing from Clearwater, Florida, also wanted to give back. Like Stillwell, Kendell’s life-altering experience in a 2003 plane crash demonstrated exactly how exhausting a recovery can be, and, in 2011—between campaigns to represent the USA in sailing at the Paralympic Games—Kendell decided to create a sailing camp for kids with acquired and congenital limb differences. He coincidentally planned to call the program the Never Say Never Pirate Camp, but further research led him to the NSN Foundation, and the two groups joined forces.

The first annual Pirate Camp unfurled in mid-October, 2012 as a partnership between the NSN Foundation and Sailability Greater Tampa Bay—a 501(c)3 non-profit that’s focused on helping physically challenged individuals experience sailing—at the Clearwater Community Sailing Center, in Clearwater, Florida, with ten pirates and their families attending. This later point is key, as one of the founders’ fundamental visions for the camp involved giving pirates and their families an opportunity to laugh, play and experience the ocean—and each other—outside of their otherwise-hurried lives.

Word spread and the camp began drawing pirates from other states and countries. “We quadrupled in size,” said Kendell. “We’re now at 100 kids and their families, and it’s all that we—and the sailing center—can handle.”

  • three kids in pirate costumes sitting on a boat

Impressively, the NSN Foundation finances each NSN Pirate Camp—and the running blades that they gift to select attending pirates—through private and corporate donations, sponsorship and fundraising initiatives, allowing pirates and their families to travel and attend, free-of-charge. “We hosted 51 families in 2018, and more than half were first-time pirates,” said Stilwell. “For a lot of these people it was their first time on a plane and their first time on a beach.”

While pirates have always had to apply to come to camp, 2018 was the first year the organizers received more submissions than they could accommodate. This, of course, puts additional weight on each application. “The kids write an essay explaining why they want to come to camp,” said Kendell of the application process. “We’ve also had to do this with volunteers.”

Once at camp, attendees’ real-world concerns begin receding at Thursday’s initial meet-and-greet event, where the pirates are introduced to the camp founders and volunteers and sorted into groups with assigned leaders. Friday and Saturday are both packed with water-focused activities and Saturday evening’s much much-anticipated pirate-themed party, while Sunday is a half-day of sailing and other water-related activities.

“Everything takes place at the sailing center, not just the sailing,” said Kendell, who, along with his teammates, won a silver medal in sailing at the Rio 2016 Paralympics in three-person Sonar event and who serves as the camp’s head sailing instructor. “Fishing and visiting the dolphins are big hits, and we take the kids sailing on 12 Hobie Wave catamarans,” said Kendell, explaining that each group rotates through grin-inducing activities including sailing, paddle boarding, and kayaking. “We have one captain per [Hobie Wave] and we fill them up with kids, parents too, if there’s room, and water guns—big time!”

Conditions permitting, the swashbucklers voyage to nearby islands while learning the ropes of sailing and a respect for the ocean and the marine environment. These islands are also home to Saturday’s always-popular treasure hunt. “We’re not talking plastic coins,” said Kendell, explaining that the camp stations two costume-clad adults on island to welcome arriving pirates, and to stash more loot in between groups. “These were real coins—real treasure.”

  • a group of adults in pirate costumes with a young boy
Plunder aside, the camp presents itself as a rare opportunity for all pirates to feel run-of-the-mill ordinary. “That weekend they’re not different, they’re all the same,” said Matt Beavers—Gage’s dad—about their family’s fantastic experiences attending four consecutive camps. “They never complain, they embrace the experience,” added Kelli Beavers, Gage’s mom. “They draw a lot of attention at the hotel, but when they’re all together they’re less self-conscious.” This, in turn, helps foster a positive and protective environment for learning, socializing, and for simply being a kid on a boat on a beautiful patch of water. 

While Pirate Camp takes place on or around the water, its signature event—Saturday evening’s Pirate Camp party—is held in a large event tent and includes an awards ceremony honoring top pirate performances, such as Gage Beavers’ 2018 induction into the Blade Squad. It’s also when Stilwell and the NSN Foundation gift a few precious carbon-fiber running blades. 

Determining which lucky pirates receive this rare carbon-fiber booty is no easy task, and this decision-making process has always been focused on giving budding athletes the tools they need to compete at the highest level of competition that they can, while also enabling little kids to run and play with their friends. “Nick gives a lot of thought into who we give the legs to,” said Kendell, explaining that a set of pirate-sized carbon-fiber running blades can cost $5,000 to $7,000, excluding the cost of their bespoke-fitting attachment sockets. Because of this, Stilwell and the NSN Foundation look for a few select athletes like Gage who—when equipped with a blade—can compete on team and in individual sports well into high school and beyond. 
  • a boy in a pink shirt holding a fish and a boy smiling next to a man dressed as a pirate
“They don’t know they’re getting a blade,” said Kelli Beavers about the Pirate Camp party attendees. “They’re called up in front of the audience with the DJ—Gage was shocked and I cried.” This life-changing experience, which happened at the 2015 Pirate Camp party, inspired Gage to selflessly devote years worth of birthday gifts to help other limb-different athletes receive blades.

Impressively, other pirates followed suite. 

“One girl, Kynnli, got her blades in 2017, and then she raised money for her friend Lana to get blades,” said Stilwell, adding that Kynnli was just five years old at the time.

Moreover, at the 2018 camp, Adam Dengle, an attending dad from the U.K., brought several 3D-printed hands, which he gave away at the party. Dengle personally designed and printed these hands in kid-friendly color schemes, including the Incredible Hulk and professional sports-team livery. 

While blades and 3D-printed hands are in limited supply, all pirates, their siblings and their parents debark with memories of sailing, the ocean, new friends, and—hopefully—inspiration gained from spending time with other fun-loving, limb-different pirates. “It’s all about learning what you can do, and learning it in your own way,” said Kendell. “It’s a huge confidence-booster. The kids see others doing something so they start doing it at camp.”

But as with any camp, some of the most enduring magic comes from shared experiences. “Getting to meet other kids that struggle like I do,” said Gage Beavers. “That’s what makes it special.”

To learn more, pleases visit www.neversayneverfoundation.org
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