Mobility chairs with tank treads to move veterans at Ribfest
Electric wheelchairs with tank treads are coming to Naperville's Ribfest this summer to help veterans get around the sprawling festival grounds.
A Plainfield-based veterans recreation and fitness nonprofit called AllenForce is bringing the chairs, along with a veterans' hospitality tent, to the fest for the first time July 4-7.
Called "VETANKS," the mobility aides will help veterans with injuries or disabilities get from the ribbers to the main stage, or from the business expo to the family area during the 31st annual event, Ribfest Chairman and Exchange Club of Naperville member Joel Carlsen said.
"We're a 14-acre park," he said about the festival's site at Knoch Park near downtown, "and it's hard for people to get around."
AllenForce plans to bring three or four VETANKS to Ribfest, making them available on a first-come, first-served basis at the park's east gate on Martin Avenue west of Washington Street. If the park gets too crowded with fans eager to hear Pitbull or Steven Tyler and the Loving Mary Band, or with foodies fixin' for ribs, AllenForce might have to sideline the VETANKS until the crowds thin, CEO and co-founder Donna Allen-Sebok said.
"They're 450 pounds," Allen-Sebok said of the mobility chairs, which can come with the downside of looking "intimidating" to some. "We don't want toes being run over."
A trained AllenForce volunteer will stay with each veteran who uses a VETANK to do the driving.
Lemuel "James" Dahan, a Marine veteran with a disability who serves as special events coordinator for AllenForce, said this helps improve the battery life of the chairs, which can last up to eight hours. Trained drivers know how to limit turns, which use extra battery life because turning requires one tread to stop or turn in the opposite direction.
But the tank treads, though tedious for turning, are what separate the VETANK from the average wheelchair.
"That gives them real all-terrain ability. They can climb over obstructions," Dahan said. "They don't go incredibly fast, but there's not much that will stop them. They're quite amazing chairs."
At Ribfest, the chairs might help veterans traverse padded grass, baseball diamond sand or muddy terrain, depending on the weather.
"It really provides a safer way to get around," Allen-Sebok said.
Veterans can borrow one of the chairs at the veterans' hospitality tent, which AllenForce says is a respite of "veteran culture" and quiet amid the bustle of a festival. Dahan said the hospitality can help if a condition such as post-traumatic stress disorder makes veterans feel overwhelmed.
"We've had veterans say, 'The only reason I came out was I knew you'd be here. I knew if I couldn't handle this environment, I could always come back here and have a safe place to be,'" Dahan said. "That's been really uplifting for us."
Carlsen said Ribfest organizers are eager to provide this kind of assistance to veterans, who get free entry to the park all day on Wednesday, July 4.
"Providing accessibility and hospitality to the veterans in the community is what AllenForce is all about," Allen-Sebok said.