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By Emily Funderburk

NAVAIR Total Force Communications Support

NAVAIR’s Don Balcom is off to a running start on his way to becoming a leader.

Balcom, a mechanical engineer working for the Target Engineering Support Branch, Solomons Detachment, within NAVAIR’s Atlantic Targets and Marine Operations Division, has become an award-winning international Paralympic runner and now, in the last few months, a rower. He’s also a star member of his team at NAVAIR, participating in NAVAIR’s Leadership Development Program (NLDP) since 2013 and the Individuals with Targeted Disabilities Advisory Team.

It hasn’t been easy. While in the Navy, Balcom was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, an eye disease that damages the retinal tissue, causing decreased vision at night or in low light and loss of peripheral vision. He was subsequently discharged from the Navy, and by age 31, he was declared legally blind.

He has only approximately 5 degrees of vision, he said, compared to normal vision, which encompasses approximately 160 degrees. He cannot drive and has assistance from guides when running races and on new terrain.

His motto comes from Olympic figure skater Scott Hamilton: “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.”

Balcom certainly doesn’t have one. A lifelong athlete who loved to coach and play soccer, Balcom said when he lost his ability to drive, it put a “severe damper” on his physical activities. Over the next 10 years, he prioritized his family and career over fitness.

Then, Balcom saw a television show about the 2011 Ironman Triathlon World Championships. It piqued his interest, so he began running to lose weight and also joined the Paralympic Sport Club Southern Maryland Advisory Board.

Now, Balcom competes in Paralympic track and rowing events, recently winning gold in the 2013 Paralympic Track and Field National Championships in the men’s 1500-meter dash and taking first place at the Mid-Atlantic Erg Sprints in Washington, D.C., for rowing. Next up? Training to compete in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

“Like everything, there needs to be a balance. Wellness needs to be incorporated into every facet of your lifestyle, especially professional,” he said. “It seems to me that people tend to check wellness at the door when they come into work. They get into work mode and forget about everything else. While this helps focus on the tasks at hand, it can be detrimental to the overall quality of life.”

Wellness is a key part of the NLDP curriculum and is integrated in each of the five courses as participants learn about the importance of daily exercise, healthy eating and proper sleep habits. The program also includes “wellness crews” to help individuals track their daily fitness and diet goals as part of a team, earning points when they accomplish them.

“I began incorporating some wellness items I learned into my everyday routine at work,” Balcom said. “This includes choosing healthier snacks and meals, drinking plenty of water throughout the day and making sure I get my 3,000 steps in per day. While at first it was a conscious effort to remember to do these items, after a month or so, they became routine. I could definitely tell if I didn’t follow the plan because there was a nagging feeling I was forgetting something. I found it very helpful to actually track these items on a daily basis, as suggested through the NLDP.”

Chronic diseases such as depression and hypertension can lead to a decline in the overall health of employees in a workplace, contribute to an increase in health-related expenses for employers and employees, and lead to days away from work, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“NAVAIR recognizes the important role that wellness plays in building a long-range workforce strategy and creating supportive environments for healthier and more productive employees,” said former NLDP Manager Stephanie Gleason.

Balcom believes wellness is particularly important for leaders to set an example for their co-workers and employees.

“It’s one thing to be told to do something, but you really have to lead by example,” Balcom said. “You want to have a leader who talks the talk and walks the walk. Wellness is not just a good leadership principle; it’s a good quality of life principle.”

Other NLDP participants and NAVAIR leaders agree. Keith Probert, an NLDP graduate, said the program’s health and wellness lessons influenced him to lose 20 pounds by changing his eating habits (specifically, reducing the number of meals in restaurants), increasing his physical activity through biking, running and lifting weights, and paying more attention to his overall health.

“NLDP’s health and wellness program made me acutely aware of the potential health risks brought on by being overweight and provided me the necessary motivation to make changes in my lifestyle,” he said. “I knew that doing nothing was not an option, and I would eventually face future health risks. The information and techniques I learned have optimized my physical, mental and emotional health to be a more productive and effective leader in my organization.”

NAVAIR Deputy Commander Garry Newton urged leaders to focus on wellness and model healthy behaviors for their employees. He also encouraged employees, supervisors and team leaders to work together to balance wellness activities with work commitments.

“It makes us more productive,” he said. “Everyone needs time to recharge through physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health.”

Revamped in 2013, NLDP’s goal is to mentor, nurture and develop the next generation of NAVAIR leaders to work toward a shared vision. NLDP participants, in addition to taking leadership classes over a period of three to five years, complete job rotations and continuous process improvement projects, find mentors, explore emergent technologies, create individual development plans, shadow senior leaders, attend leadership and diversity events and build a professional network.