Taking It Outside

Colorado adventure nonprofits help sooth injuries with invigorating outdoor sports for the disabled

More than 2,000 disabled participants are served annually by Adaptive Adventures, which uses outdoor sports to build confidence while having fun. Photography: Adaptive Adventures

More than 2,000 disabled participants are served annually by Adaptive Adventures, which uses outdoor sports to build confidence while having fun. Photography: Adaptive Adventures

As a home to innovative, gutsy organizations helping the disabled reclaim their lives, Colorado is a leader. It’s no surprise that with an obsession for all things outdoors, many nonprofits look to the mountains, rivers, lakes and trails for inspiration that can heal wounds, if not minds. Here are four that win DLM’s extraordinary seal of approval.

Defying cancer through adventure sports
When his 32-year-old aunt was diagnosed with cancer, pro kayaker Brad Ludden saw how paddling made visible improvements in her attitude and healing. Ludden wondered: Could adventure sports empower other young cancer victims in the same manner?

Putting his theory to the test, Ludden established First Descents (FD) in 2001 to offer cancer patients age 18-39 free adventure programs involving surfing, kayaking and rock and ice climbing. Based in Denver but worldwide in scope, the nonprofit has proven to help participants reclaim their lives and connect with other cancer fighters. “The outdoors makes positive changes in perspective and this is the most underserved demographic,” says FD’s Sarah Hubbard. “These are people who are just getting independent lives, and cancer really jars this age group.”

Participants, including amputees, at any stage in their diagnosis, are assessed concerning both capabilities and goals, and then they spend a week in 15-person, guide-led sessions. Together with outfitters providing the gear and logistics, the one-on-one approach teaches and develops skill sets, which reminds participants that they are capable of fighting the disease both physically and mentally.

Through First Descents, cancer fighters ages 18 to 39 reclaim their lives through adventure sports, such as kayaking. Photography: First Descents

Through First Descents, cancer fighters ages 18 to 39 reclaim their lives through adventure sports, such as kayaking. Photography: First Descents

“It’s a game-changer for them,” Hubbard says of the 3,000 people who have enrolled in FD. “The depression is overwhelming, but they come here and see they’re not alone and that sports make them more equipped to fight the disease.” firstdescents.org

Physically challenged athletes gain competitive edge
In 1970, the Winter Park Ski School was asked by Children’s Hospital Colorado if some of its amputee kids could visit and learn how to ski. The school’s Hal O’Leary took on the challenge, and by cobbling together the first adaptive equipment made to help children with amputations ski, the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD) was born.

During its 45 years, the Colorado (Denver/Winter Park) nonprofit has grown to become among the world’s largest outdoor therapeutic recreation organizations, serving 3,000 annually with 20,000 individual lessons. All programs take place in Colorado and the disabilities served include but are not limited to ADD/ADHD, amputation, brain injury, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, PTSD, spinal cord injury and blindness.

Skiing was and still is NSCD’s foundation, but it provides individuals with 15 different sports according to the participants’ specific goals. “These vary widely,” says President and CEO Becky Zimmermann. “But we want to accomplish three things: safety, progress toward goals and fun.” A stroke victim’s goal might be more use of the body while a 10-year-old with behavioral issues may have the goal of making a friend, she explains.

NSCD has the distinction of training elite-level athletes with disabilities who’ve competed in the International Paralympics, with 34 athletes from six countries competing in the 2014 Sochi Paralympics alone. “Many of them were athletes before illness, some are veterans and some are average people who want achievements,” Zimmermann says. “But really, it’s about having fun.” nscd.org

Progressive outdoor sports enable the disabled
Children, adults and veterans with physical disabilities as well as their families are all under the same tent provided by Adaptive Adventures (AA), a Chicago- and Denver-based nonprofit hosting outdoor adventures and events that “brings programs to people.”

“We’re passionate about outdoor sports and the benefits they provide to the disabled,” says Matt Feeney, who suffered lower paralysis from a spinal cord injury and co-founded Adaptive Adventures in 1999 with Joel Berman, an above-knee amputee. “What’s unique is that we’re site-based,” he says of the weekly events such as skiing, snowboarding, kayaking, cycling, rafting, climbing, wakeboarding and sailing in Colorado and Illinois. “We consider everyone to be a participant, from the disabled to support members including caregivers, community members, family and friends.”

Project Sanctuary has hosted mountain retreats for more then 480 families. Photography: Project Sanctuary

Project Sanctuary has hosted mountain retreats for more then 480 families. Photography: Project Sanctuary

Fundraising events, sports marketing, grants and donors help funnel the funds needed to host events like AA’s Steamboat Springs Camp, which integrates four days of adaptive skiing, meals, lift tickets, lodging and camaraderie. “It’s a big deal, especially for new skiers who learn at a ski-hill near our Chicago office, get confidence and then come to Colorado’s more challenging terrain,” says Feeney.

Feeney and Berman each have thrived in sports despite their disabilities. Like its co-founders, AA’s formula has benefited some 2,000 participants yearly by expanding their capabilities, increasing fitness levels and boosting self-confidence. “Any chance to get out of the wheelchair, I’m there,” Feeney says. “Water, snow, bikes, boards…they’re all great equalizers.” adaptiveadventures.org

Military families rebuild lives with physical, emotional healing
The best way to support U.S. troops is by supporting military families, according to this Granby-based nonprofit that helps shell-shocked families reconnect through therapeutic retreats. Founded by Heather Ehle in 2007 after seeing a lapse in follow-up care and resources, Project Sanctuary (PS) fills a critical, underserved niche for the roughly 200 families and 19 retreats it hosts annually in Colorado, Texas and Utah.

“Veteran suicide is 22 [people] per day upon return,” she says, noting that she witnessed families “falling apart” at veteran clinics in Colorado. “We’ve heard many times that we’ve saved their lives and marriages.” Of the hundreds of PS alum, there have been zero suicides and 90 percent remain married and employed, statistics Ehle is rightfully proud of.

Therapeutic six-day retreats are often staged in the cool, beautiful climes of the Colorado Rockies, and Ehle provides structure by pulling from her background as a registered nurse to integrate evidence-based programs that meet families’ needs. Families essentially reset their meters by hiking, skiing, rafting, fishing, horseback riding and other activities, with follow-up that includes spiritual, physical and emotional support.

PS has hosted more than 480 military families and has a waitlist of at least 1,500 families, lending urgency to surveys showing 80 percent of post-deployed military suffer from PTSD and other invisible wounds. “We have a whole generation of kids who don’t know life without war,” Ehle states. “Military families need to remember who they are beyond war.” projectsanctuary.us

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