Ukrainian and Sri Lankan emerging leaders thrive at Ability360

By Brian Canever, Center for Sport, Peace, & Society August 10, 2016

Only a few miles from Phoenix International Airport you will find Ability 360, the largest independent living center in Arizona and the mentorship site for two emerging leaders from the GSMP: Sport for Community program: Oleksandra Nasadiuk of Ukraine and Priyantha Peiris of Sri Lanka.

A 62,000-square-foot universally designed, non-profit resource center, Ability360 boasts a state-of-the-art sports and fitness center, which has achieved Gold Level among Paralympic Sports Clubs and offers wheelchair basketball, wheelchair lacrosse, quad rugby, power soccer, wheelchair tennis, and a handful of other sports activities. For three weeks, Brielle Carter, program coordinator for sports and fitness, and her team worked hand-in-hand with Oleksandra and Priyantha, equipping them with the tools to return to their countries to create sport-inspired social change.

“This was the perfect place for us,” said Oleksandra, deputy head of international relations for the National Paralympic Committee of Ukraine. “Brielle took care of us like a mother. We had so many meetings scheduled and the staff was so friendly to us, even from picking us up at the airport with a big welcome sign. I found everything I needed for my Action Plan here.”

Oleksandra Nasadiuk, deputy head of international relations for the Ukraine Paralympic Committee, poses at Ability360

Oleksandra Nasadiuk, deputy head of international relations for the Ukraine Paralympic Committee, poses at Ability360

Oleksandra was very interested by the work Ability360 does for disabled military veterans. With the current military conflict in Ukraine leaving many children and adults with a range of physical and psychological disabilities, she was inspired during her time at the organization. She now plans to launch Camp Valerie, an initiative that will focus on physical and psychological rehabilitation through the avenue of sports camps for children affected by the conflict.

“In Ukraine, there are 11 million people who are internally displaced, three million with disabilities, and many of them are children who are far away from their homes and their friends,” Oleksandra said. “Valerie in Latin means to be strong, healthy, and valiant. And this is exactly what I want children in Ukraine to be. It is where children of war will heal because sport heals. It will make them self-confident and bring them back to life.”

Priyantha, an executive member of the Sri Lanka Paralympic Committee and disability equality trainer, also knows the devastation of war intimately. For 30 years, his country was affected by a bitter conflict that devastated its northern and eastern provinces. Priyantha, who acquired a spinal disability after an accident while studying at a university in Moscow, has dedicated his career to create awareness, equality, and empowerment campaigns in the affected provinces.

“I represent the deprived people of Sri Lanka who suffer mentally and physically,” Priyantha said. “I’ve been there with them. I am a grassroots level man and they are my focus. The people in the northern and eastern provinces were deprived of their rights for three decades and there are amazing athletes there. Through sports, we can rehabilitate them, reintegrate them, and provide them a way to compete at the highest level.”

Priyantha Peiris, an executive member of the Sri Lanka Paralympic Committee, works from his desk at Ability360 in Phoenix, Ariz.

Priyantha Peiris, an executive member of the Sri Lanka Paralympic Committee, works from his desk at Ability360 in Phoenix, Ariz.

With Brielle and her team, Priyantha developed a project called Power of Sports – Undisputed, focused on creating adaptive sports and fitness programs. The main hope is to develop five new athletes from the former conflict zones in Sri Lanka to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.

“Where reconciliation is concerned, I believe sport is the best tool,” Priyantha said. “In our national track championship last year, there were athletes from the provinces who couldn’t speak my own native language or English. But it was not a barrier from them to come in and run. And they won many medals. Some of them were former fighters who were competing alongside army soldiers, when 10 years ago these same men were fighting each other with weapons. It was a remarkable, special achievement.”

Brielle and the Ability360 team will follow along with Oleksandra and Priyantha’s progress and offer support as they hit new milestones in their Action Plans. For Brielle, the mentorship experience was just as special as it was for her emerging leaders.

“When I first read their bios and met with Sacha and Priyantha in person, I thought, ‘Could I really teach these two amazing people anything new?” Brielle said. “But, as we got to know each other, we developed this deep sense of connection and understanding that mentorship and developing these projects is a process. I really believe all three of us can change the world if we work together.”

To follow along with Camp Valerie, visit Oleksandra’s Facebook page

To follow along with Power of Sports – Undisputed, visit Priyantha’s Facebook page