In 1996, a tragic accident took the mobility of Jess Markt, Oregon ’99, a varsity track athlete. With the help of his brothers at Oregon, Markt has overcome his disability and channeled it into a quest to help others in developing countries through sports.
Markt works with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) by implementing disability sports programs. He coaches wheelchair basketball in developing countries that are dealing with war and conflict.
Basketball had always been a passion for Markt, due to the athleticism, strategy and camaraderie that the game requires. He was also a high jumper for the track team at Oregon when he broke his back in a tragic car accident that left him paralyzed.
After the accident, sports continued to play an important role in his life. “I had played wheelchair basketball for about nine years, but had never coached,” he said. “I had never traveled to the developing world at that point and had certainly never thought about going to Afghanistan. When I saw that request and an accompanying picture of the players, I decided almost immediately that I would do it.
“When the opportunity arose to pass that gift on to other disabled individuals in places like Afghanistan, where they may otherwise never have the chance to experience the rehabilitative power of sports, I felt like it was something I needed to do,” said Markt.
In addition to coaching two teams near his home in Colorado, Markt has traveled to Afghanistan, India, Cambodia, and the West Bank and Gaza to coach.
“When I first started doing this work, the obstacles I faced were both physical and sociopolitical,” said Markt. “Not only was I traveling to a place — Afghanistan — that is a pretty far cry from being wheelchair accessible, but I was also going there as an American citizen during a war in which the U.S. was occupying their country.”
Markt said he was surprised to find the Afghan people very welcoming and hospitable, and every trip gets easier and easier because of that.
“I love experiencing the distinct cultures and physical environments of the places I am lucky enough to see during this very interesting time in their respective histories.
“Through teaching wheelchair basketball, I think I’m helping the players to find a sense of purpose and a self-confidence that they may not have believed was possible for them before becoming athletes,” he said. “That’s the most gratifying part of this work — seeing the direct impact sports can have on the perceptions the players have of themselves, as well as a change in the way their communities view them and their place in society.”
Markt understands just how much a supportive community means to people who’ve experienced debilitating injuries. His SigEp brothers rallied around him in the days and months following his accident.
“I am so grateful for everything the Fraternity did for my family and me during this transitional period in my life — the impact of their support cannot be overstated,” he said.
Oregon Beta was there for Markt emotionally, but they also provided more tangible support. The brothers raised money for a complete remodel of their chapter house, making it the first wheelchair accessible Greek house on campus.
Markt’s father, Bill Markt, Oregon Renaissance, conducted the renovation. The chapter initiated Bill as a SigEp Renaissance brother, and the national fraternity awarded him the Honor of Philias in 1997. With the help of his chapter brothers and his father, Jess has been able to overcome serious difficulties and even focus his life outward in service to others.
Markt has plans to return to Afghanistan, India and Palestine in 2016, and hopes to work with the ICRC to start new programs in additional countries as well.