By Guest Blogger Christopher K. Hensley, Executive Director, Adaptive Sports Center
There are many ways of arriving at a place of grace and acceptance when dealing with a disability, and everyone has their own timeline for doing so. Some individuals rapidly bounce back after an accident or medical diagnosis, looking forward with great enthusiasm to what adventures lay ahead, and rarely reflecting on the past.
We see this often at the Adaptive Sports Center (ASC): the war veteran who is charging down the slopes in a sit ski with aspirations to compete in the X Games, just months after having both his legs amputated; or the 20-something professional with a recent spinal cord injury who is back at work full-time, has a busy social life and is newly passionate about handcycling. These are truly remarkable individuals and an inspiration to us all.
For some, it can take many years to fully adapt to life with a disability, such as a traumatic brain injury or degenerative disease like multiple sclerosis. Still others fall somewhere in between when coming to terms with a “new normal.” At the ASC, we are huge believers in outdoor adventure recreation participation as a means for getting to that place of acceptance faster and with less bumps along the way. Our mission, specifically, is to “enhance the quality of life of people with disabilities through exceptional outdoor adventure activities. The successful programs we provide are inclusive to families and friends, empower our participants in their daily lives and have a positive enduring effect on self-efficacy, health, independence and overall well-being.”
There are numerous reasons why outdoor adventure recreation resonates with people, including individuals who have always had an active lifestyle, and those who are just delving in for the first time. Here in Crested Butte, Colorado, our clients are offered an exceptional experience, which starts with beautiful surroundings, fresh mountain air and small town charm and hospitality. The activities we provide – from snowboarding to rock climbing – are challenging and designed to help people push themselves outside of their comfort zone in a good way. Of course, it is well known that engaging in physical activity naturally releases endorphins and other feel-good chemicals in the brain.
Then there are additional experiences that encourage emotional wellness – opportunities for socializing, camaraderie with people who have gone through a similar life experience (our groups often live together in a house or condo for the duration of their stay) and positive reinforcement from fellow participants and ASC staff. We encourage individuals with disabilities to take part in activities with their able-bodied family members, and it is often a new and refreshing experience to be on a level playing field with loved ones.
These various factors often lead to an extraordinary transformation for our clients. Some of the things we hear on a regular basis: “I felt like the perceived challenges of my daily life are easier to handle after coming to the ASC,” “I have more confidence to pursue my goals,” “I am more active in my community,” “I don’t feel as limited as I once did,” “Our family has finally found something we all love to do and can do, together,” and the list goes on. These are the reasons why those of us at the ASC continue to do what we do. Our programs can serve as an important piece in the recovery process, either alone or combined with other types of treatment, such as occupational, physical and talk therapy.
Several years ago, we established a relationship with the D.C. Firefighters Burn Foundation, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., founded by active and retired firefighters to assist in the recovery and rehabilitation of injured colleagues and burn patients. Just this week, we hosted a group of seven men brought together by the foundation who have had their lives turned upside down because of on-the-job injuries. Their challenges in recent months and years include amputated fingers and limbs, nerve damage, third degree burns, broken bones, a coma and more.
The group has participated in numerous winter pursuits with us, including ice climbing in the nearby town of Ouray, alpine skiing and snowboarding on Mt. Crested Butte and Nordic skiing just outside of Crested Butte. I’ve seen incredible spirit in these men from the day they arrived. And in talking with the group toward the end of their stay, I am pleased to see that our program has had a positive impact on them.
Participant Mitch Dryer was injured in a structure fire at a bowling alley in 2007. He sustained third and fourth degree burns to 20 percent of his body, and his right arm was amputated due to his injuries. Dryer spent six weeks in a burn unit and many months in therapy after the incident. His experience with the ASC has been an important step in his ongoing recovery.
Here is what he had to say about the experience: “I was not expecting to progress as much as I did on this trip. If I stood up more than I fell down, I would have thought I did pretty well. But I progressed so much more than I could have ever expected. Having the opportunity to be a part of a team again, building relationships and joking around felt like I was back with the crew again. I needed that. There are some local ski areas that I am thinking about trying out when I return home. I haven’t had a lot of hobbies since the incident, so skiing might become my new thing.”
Visit http://vimeo.com/57243324 to see a video on Mitch and the D.C. Burn Group.
The ASC has conducted a preliminary study with Brigham Young University to determine the positive effects of outdoor adventure recreation participation on a person’s quality of life, and the results are promising. The study is the first of its kind in our field and provides validation for the work we do. However, one-on-one conversations with folks like Mitch Dryer are all that is really necessary to understand the value of adaptive outdoor adventure recreation. When you see someone’s eyes light up and a smile spread across their face when they talk with enthusiasm about skiing down a mountain or climbing up an ice wall with crampons and ice axes, you know then – this type of therapy works.
Learn more about the Adaptive Sports Center at www.adaptivesports.org.
Christopher K. Hensley grew up in Southern California and graduated from USC with a degree in finance and philosophy. Immediately afterward, he decided to move to a ski town for a season and has been in Crested Butte for 18 years since. Seventeen of those years have been with the Adaptive Sports Center, starting out as a Winter Instructor and eventually becoming the Executive Director in 1998. Chris has a level III PSIA certification and is certified as an ABBE challenge course facilitator. Chris takes pride in how much the ASC has grown and how many lives it affects. He enjoys working with a first-class staff that dedicates their time to making the ASC one of the best programs around. Chris also serves on the Gunnison County Trails Commission and United States Handcycling Federation Board.