MOUNT VERNON – When the local nonprofit Paddle for Heroes formed in 2016, the goal was to kayak from Mount Vernon to Marietta. The veterans and first responders who set out on the first five-day, 161-mile voyage wanted to raise money and awareness for those injured during their time in the service.

Along the way, the support they saw from communities and campgrounds across Ohio inspired a more tangible, ambitious goal: to raise enough money to install an ADA-accessible kayak launch in Knox County.

On Thursday, after two years of fundraising (and two more trips down to Marietta), that dream officially became a reality.

The Knox County Chamber of Commerce unveiled Paddle for Heroes’ newly installed kayak launch at Ariel-Foundation Park with a ribbon cutting ceremony. Community leaders and watercraft enthusiasts gathered near the park’s Central Lake, where those with limited mobility will now be able to use the ADA-accessible kayak launch to get out onto the water.

“When you get injured or have a loss of use or a limitation to your body, particularly as a veteran, it’s not always the pain that creates the frustration, it’s the inability to perform simple tasks – not being able to participate like everybody else, or even worse, having to ask someone else for help. It’s the most embarrassing part,” Kim Rose, president of the Foundation Park Conservancy, told the crowd.

“This device will truly help our injured veterans get back on the water, and will help our residents and visitors of all abilities be more active and mobile, and enjoy the resources of Ariel-Foundation Park.”

Paddle for Heroes raised nearly $35,000 to fund the launch, which was installed June 6. It essentially serves as an extension of a deck, including a ramp that leads to down to the dock. Those with disabilities can place their kayak on the launch belt, then use overhead handles to lower themselves into the boat. By using the side rails, kayakers can pull themselves out onto the water and begin paddling.

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The launch at Ariel-Foundation Park is one of only two in Ohio to be 100 percent ADA-accessible, Paddle for Heroes founder Steve Fleming said. Both were manufactured by Board Safe, a Pennsylvania-based company that specializes in custom kayak launches.

Board Safe launches can fit adaptable kayaks onto the belt, Fleming explained, as they are built to handle special mounts and seats. Team River Runner, an organization that helps veterans with missing limbs get out onto the water, told Fleming this was the only launch its clients could use. Research proved the organization right, Fleming said, and the decision was easy.

“[The Ohio Department of Natural Resources] put all these launches in and they’re not 100 percent ADA-accessible. They say they are, but they’re not 100 percent,” Fleming said. “This one is 100 percent.”

As it turns out, the man behind Ohio’s other Board Safe launch attended Thursday’s ceremony as well. Leon Mertz made the two-and-a-half-hour drive from Minster to watch Fleming cut the ribbon.

Mertz had gotten to know Fleming through Board Safe, which connected the two during Fleming’s search for a launch manufacturer. Mertz spearheaded the effort last year to bring an ADA-accessible kayak launch to Lake Loramie State Park through his nonprofit, Loramie Eagles & Wildlife. He guided Fleming through the grant writing process and said he looks forward to staying in touch with Paddle for Heroes, so that they can share ideas for future projects.

“We’re looking forward to building our program and helping you guys out with yours,” Mertz said with a smile.

Both Fleming and Mertz used grassroots fundraising efforts to pay for their respective launches. Paddle for Heroes received support from a long list of local individuals and businesses, and the organization even received donations from out-of-town; one U.S. Marine Corps veteran sent a check for $5,000, while an Air Force veteran donated $1,000 – and neither were from Mount Vernon.

Paddle for Heroes put on several fundraisers, including a concert at Ariel-Foundation Park last summer, but still needed an extra funding push this spring to be able to purchase the launch. A $5,000 grant from the Knox County Foundation would ultimately seal the deal.

Fleming believes the ADA-accessible kayak launch will provide mental and physical health benefits for the entire community. For those who have suffered during their time in the service, however, the opportunity to get back out onto the water could be even more fruitful.

“To our wounded service members and first responders, there is no better healing tool than the great outdoors,” said Fleming, who has served nearly two decades in the U.S. Coast Guard. “A recent study published in the American Journal of Recreation Therapy showed adaptable kayaking provides a significant equivalence of health-related quality of life and belonging to the wounded, ill and [PTSD-inflicted] service members.

“The ADA-accessible launch will benefit anyone wanting to enter and exit the water safely. The launch will enhance the lives of veterans, the elderly and people with physical limitations, so they can experience the freedom and independence paddling can bring.”

If the launch at Lake Loramie is any indicator, Mount Vernon’s new dock should be an instant hit in the community. Mertz said Shelby County residents began using their dock immediately last fall, and that trend continued into this spring.

“It was amazing how many people were using it right away. People with hip replacements, knee replacements, things like that – two weeks later, in a kayak again,” Mertz said. “We’re seeing pods of kayakers, six to eight kayakers in each pod. They’re just out there having fun, and it’s well worth it.”

Because it is one of only two in the state to be completely ADA-accessible, Ariel-Foundation Park’s kayak launch could potentially draw people from outside Mount Vernon. Fleming said he’s already received emails and Facebook messages from people in Columbus and Cleveland who are interested in checking it out.

For those interested locally in learning more about kayaking, Ariel-Foundation Park is hosting a beginner kayaking safety course every other Saturday this summer. The American Canoe Association has provided a Level 1 certified instructor to teach the course, which is available to anyone age 16 or older.

As for Paddle for Heroes, Fleming is unsure what’s next on the fundraising agenda. The group plans to provide kayaks free-of-charge for veterans and first responders at Ariel-Foundation Park on the Fourth of July, so they can watch the fireworks from the water. Paddle for Heroes will also participate in Kokosing and Mohican river clean-ups again this fall.

But for the time being, Fleming said he wants to soak this in. As he stood before the crowd on Thursday, he could hardly contain his smile. This was a project two years in the making, that he could not have completed without the men and women standing behind him. Paddle for Heroes had a plan, and its members were relentless in seeing it through.

The final product will benefit paddlers from Knox County and beyond for years to come. For someone who grew up kayaking in Mount Vernon, and who has seen first-hand the benefits of paddling for disabled veterans, this project was personal.

“We feel we have an obligation to leave our community in better shape than we found it,” Fleming said. “This park is a great example of that.”

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