News & Politics

2006 Washingtonians of the Year: Joe Mornini

“We wanted to give them back the sense of adventure.”

Photograph by Matthew Worden.

The young men and women wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan often face another tough battle at home—the fight to rehabilitate their bodies and their lives. Montgomery County teacher Joe Mornini has found a way to give them back some of the joy and adventure that used to be part of their lives. He cofounded Team River Runner to get disabled vets and their families into whitewater boating.

On Tuesday nights, he and a group of volunteers are at the swimming pool at Walter Reed Army Medical Center helping soldiers in kayaks practice Eskimo rolls. Out in the hallway, other volunteers customize boats to meet the needs of injured kayak users.

Thursday afternoon, spring and fall, Mornini and crew are on the Potomac. They started three years ago with borrowed boats hauled on the tops of cars. Team River Runner has raised enough money for a van; a kayak outfitter helped them acquire boats and equipment; and so many kayakers have volunteered to help that Mornini has to turn them away.

But the energy that powers the program is pure Mornini.

Washington lawyer Sidney Dickstein, dubbed “Colorado Sid” by Mornini, learned about the program because Mornini teaches at Walt Whitman High School, the school his children attended and his grandchild goes to now. Dickstein raised funds to transport Team River Runner out to Colorado for a whitewater trip.

Mornini made vets “earn” their way to Colorado. “They have to show up and develop the skills,” Mornini says.

One of the kayakers on the Colorado trip was Corporal Derrick Harden. He lost his right leg below the knee. His left leg is still scarred from an explosion that blew him through a wall. “When I’m in a kayak, I’m like everyone else who has legs and arms,” Harden says.

“If you listen to Joe, you can do anything,” Dickstein says. “He is convinced. And that conviction makes it happen.”