Catalina Bustamante was front and center on the basketball court Feb. 11 at All People’s Life Center for the sports day specifically meant for youth with physical disabilities.
The event was made possible by way of a partnership between Shriners Hospitals for Children–Tampa and Paralympic Sport Tampa Bay, a program of the Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department housed at All People’s Life Center.
For Bustamante, it was an opportunity to celebrate the benefits of her longtime affiliation with both organizations.
“I would not be the person I am today without them,” said Bustamante, a Hillsborough Community College student majoring in art.
The 20-year-old Temple Terrace resident was born with spina bifida, a birth defect in which part of the spinal cord is exposed through a gap in the backbone.
Although the opening can be surgically closed following birth, in severe cases, such as Bustamante’s, the condition can still result in nerve paralysis below the spine’s lumbar region. In her instance, it limits her ability to walk.
But thanks to the proximity of both facilities, the daughter of Ana and Jose Bustamante has been able to live an active and fulfilling lifestyle.
Catalina Bustamante’s association with Shriners began when she was just 6 months old. They fitted her with her first braces and over the years with subsequent wheelchairs. She said she’s been in the capable hands of several neurologists, urologists and therapists at the center dedicated to treating children with orthopedic problems.
When she was younger, she also attended Shriners-sponsored summer camps geared specifically for kids with like conditions. They enabled her to feel comfortable in her own skin and build close, long-lasting friendships.
“That’s where you really find out you aren’t the only one,” said Bustamante, who remembers being shunned by many of her classmates during middle and high school.
“I cried every day after school,” she said.
Fortunately, her association with the Spina Bifida Association of Tampa Bay, a group that has monthly meetings at Shriners, also has provided another avenue to form bonds with kids who’ve accepted her despite her disability.
“That’s where I met Carissa Gore, and we’ve been best friends for a longtime,” Bustamante said.
Shriners also is where about 10 years ago she and her parents first came in contact with Andy Chasanoff, sports coordinator for the Paralympic program.
Formerly called Blaze Sports, it allows young people ages 6 to 22 to participate in a variety of adaptive sports, many of them in wheelchairs. Those who qualify travel throughout the country to compete with athletes from other Paralympic sport teams.
In 2007, Bustamante received the organization’s Katie Kirklin Award, one based on her spirit of excellence, courage and contributions as a role model for others.
And for someone who once thought she could never play sports, she’s also been the recipient of numerous athletic awards.
“Paralympics has made me a lot stronger, and I now know I can stand up on my own,” Bustamante said.
She said she also owes a great deal of gratitude to her parents for their support.
“Paralympics has been a life saver, but my family has been a huge help, too,” she said.
Ana Bustamante said prior to Catalina’s birth, she and her husband knew nothing about spina bifida. It was Shriners that walked them through their daughter’s needs, set up her treatment plans and furnished leg braces and wheelchairs, free of charge.
“Through Shriners, we’ve met so many wonderful people ... and people who would always answer our questions,” Ana Bustamante said.
She also credits Chasanoff and the Paralympics program for helping her daughter blossom and gain more self-confidence.
“We are very lucky we have met so many wonderful people who give so much to help others,” Ana Bustamante said.
Jose Bustamante, owner of , agreed.
“Both Shriners and Paralympics are the backbones of these children who are handicapped,” he said.
“Without them they’d be just watching TV or playing games on their computers,” he said.