It was just part of the job for Siro DeGasperis, but turned into a lifelong, labor of love, with the tradition now carried by his children and grandchildren.
The completely self-funded DeGasperis Family Foundation is a Platinum Level sponsor of the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, and has donated “in excess of six figures,” over the last 22 years, said Siro’s son, Dave.
The family is also responsible for bringing softball to the Games, one of the most popular competitions, with more than 100 Veterans from across the nation, Puerto Rico and Great Britain playing the sport each year.
It never would have happened without Siro, 83, who first got involved with the Games in 1985 while working at UPS.
The Paralyzed Veterans of America was looking for corporate sponsors and he was tasked with seeing if it would be a good fit for his company.
“The Games were just a few years old back then and he didn’t know anything about it,” Dave said. He went and just became starstruck. He was overwhelmed at what he saw. He went back to his boss and said, ‘We have got to be a part of it.’”
UPS has been a major sponsor since 1986 and has contributed more than a million dollars over the years. The company sponsors the Slalom and Super G obstacle course, handling all the logistics and shipping the equipment, at no cost to PVA or Veterans Affairs.
“My father retires from UPS in 1992, but still went every year to the Games just as a spectator because he said he missed it and seeing all the people he knew,” Dave said.
That’s when Siro took his support a little further.
“As a family, we’ve always supported Veterans and the military,” said his daughter, Debbie Kaplan. “[My father] instilled that in us.”
Siro encouraged his children – Dave, Debbie and Darlene – to check out the games. They came as spectators in 1996, and fell in love, too.
Debbie saw the slalom obstacle course, “and I was sold,” she said. “All the screaming and the crowds, I was addicted, absolutely addicted.”
For Dave, it was swimming.
“The match had finished and there was one gentleman – a double amputee – competing, still trying to get to the end of the pool,” he said. “And the whole place, everyone in the stands, stands up, clapping, yelling, ‘You can do it!’ It took him another five minutes. It didn’t matter whether he was first, second or third, and geez, what an ovation! It still gives me chills.
“We’re big baseball fans, we’re Yankees fans,” Dave added. “My dad played minor league ball and I played in high school and college. We figured if we were going to sponsor an event, we wanted it to be a sport we loved.”
The family talked Wheelchair Game organizers into adding softball as an exhibition in 1997. It was so popular, it became a permanent sport the next year, but there were some growing pains.
“That first year in Pittsburgh it was held outside on a lumpy, asphalt parking lot,” Dave said. “It was outside the year after that in Puerto Rico, too, and was way too hot.”
These days, the game is played indoors with eight different teams. The competition is set up as a bracket to determine placement and the final positioning for bronze, silver and gold. The DeGasperis donation each year helps buy and store all the equipment, pay for officials and even helps PVA buy specially-equipped sports wheelchairs every few years. UPS ships all the softball equipment.
“These chairs are high tech now, with the slanted wheels, and some of these guys are out there using them every day to play. It’s like needing a new car after 150,000 miles,” Dave said.
The DeGasperis family has been on hand one way or another since 1986. Siro and his wife, Roberta, attended almost every year until health issues made it too difficult to travel. But he was able to get to one final Wheelchair Games last year in Orlando, Florida. His brother, Lino, used to come every year to sing the National Anthem with his accordion.
Darlene and her children – Lauren, Adam and Jessica – have been to the Games regularly. And now the National Anthem tradition has been passed down to Dave’s children — Julia and Gina. The two girls have been to every Wheelchair Games for the last 20 years.
“One of my first memories is probably riding on the back of a lot of our friends’ wheelchairs,” Julia said. “They treated us like we were their own family and they watched me grow up. That’s why we have so many close friends I’ve known since I was little. I’m absolutely so blessed because my grandpa got us involved 20 years ago.”
Dave and Debbie now do the regular color commentary throughout the week and for the medal rounds. There are always hugs and lots of high fives between them and the players.
“We are a family,” Debbie said. “They come visit us, we visit them. I’m honored, I’m touched and I’m so proud of the athletes. I look forward to this every year, and then I get a little sad as it ends. It makes us feel so good to do for them, for what they’ve done for us.”
“There’s no question,” Dave added. “We will do this as long as we can.”