By Jennifer Gledhill, Search's Community Integration Coordinater
I’ve been doing this recreation gig at Search for a while now, and somewhere along the way it seems I came to the erroneous conclusion that I know what is and isn’t “possible” for people with special needs.
So when the good folks at Wilderness Inquiry asked me to bring (excuse me, how many?) seventy five people to Hobart, Indiana so they could take them (I beg your pardon?) canoeing, let’s just say I may have rolled my eyes a bit. (I can’t be too sure. But I did.)
Oh sure, their intention was nothing less than inspirational - a mission after my own heart! Toad&Co recently gave a grant to the National Park Association for the purposes of creating 1,000 outdoor experience for people with disabilities. And the Wilderness Inquiry Canoemobile was that noble mission’s secret weapon.
I was completely on board with such an exciting endeavor…but…canoes? Really guys? Don’t you have, like, an air-conditioned cabin for us to sit in or something? Something less…ambitious? Something less….drown-y?
I politely explained to the Wilderness Inquiry (WI) representative that our population was extremely diverse in their abilities, to which they politely responded that they had experience working with a wide range of disabilities.Mmhmm.
I gently expressed my concern about the safety issues that arise when you put intellectually challenged individuals - some of whom are a little unsteady on their feet - on boats. (“You know they won’t paddle, right?”) WI assured me they were confident in their ability to keep my friends safe.
Drawing from my vast experience, I predicted there would be many refusals. After all, I tried this once a decade ago, and my clients didn’t care for boats. WI suggested that it was still worth a try, right? What did we have to lose?
I thanked them, in earnest, for this incredible opportunity, and we made a game plan for a four day Canoe-Palooza in May.
I may have made an audible scoffing noise after I hung up the phone. (There’s no way to know for sure if I did or didn’t. But I did.)
While there were a handful of guardians who shared my doubt and respectfully declined the invitation, the overwhelming response was “Go for it. Have fun! Take pictures!"
I decided that the only way those Wilderness Inquiry people would trust my incredible wisdom and foresight was to just play along and let them learn the hard way.
So, we set our GPS for the Jerry Pavese park in Hobart Indiana for two days of canoeing and an overnight camping trip at the Indiana Dunes Learning Center. (My head: “At least when the canoe debacle tanks we can play horseshoes or something at the camp.”)
11:30 AM: We pulled up to the park, three vans deep. The weather was on my side: a bit chilly and overcast. The Wilderness Inquiry crew waiting for us was a stark contrast to my doom and gloom attitude: brightly colored flotation devices were laid out like candy in the grass: red, blue, and yellow safety soldiers ready for the call of duty.
The staff, dressed in green shirts and khaki pants, respectfully rose from their grassy lounge as we entered the park, their fluorescent yellow hats shining brighter than the sun.
I felt bad that we were about to crush their well-meaning spirits. To the uninitiated, our crew of twenty-five can be a bit overwhelming - we exploded out of the vans radiating fear/excitement/ wonder/giddiness - all at once.
The Wildnerness Inquiry crew stepped forward and warmly welcomed us to the park. “My name is Grant. What’s yours?”
“Well, they have to be cool with us,” I thought. “After all, this is their party, and we are their guests.”
11:40 AM: We set up a quick picnic lunch with pizza, pop, and salads from the local pizza joint.
11:45 AM: Lunch was over. Time to canoe! We turned them over to the WI leaders, and I
grabbed my seat for the show.
11:53 AM: Everyone was wearing a flotation device, and standing in a circle. WI was leading an interactive ice-breaker activity, and everyone was …. engaging in the activity.
12:15 PM: Canoe Teams were created. There were a couple of folks who declined. (But only a couple.)
12:20 PM: Paddle instruction commenced.
12:25 PM: The canoe posse, armed with paddles and great expectations, headed down to the boat ramp. I scanned the trees for a crow that I might soon have to eat.
And all of those bad things I had been so sure would happen were not happening. The clients were perfectly willing to step into wobbly canoes. And the strangest part? I was not paralyzed with concern for them.
But why? Our previous experience with canoes had been genuinely terrible.
12:32 PM: With an embarrassingly feigned nonchalance, I asked a Wilderness Inquiry staff,
“Hey, so, haha, um…has a canoe ever tipped over?”
“Only once in five years, and that was only because a boat wake toppled us….everyone was fine.”
I’m sure he caught me scanning the horizon for any signs of a speed boat. And I’m also sure he noticed my relief when I didn’t see any.
12:45 PM: About twenty adults with intellectual disabilities, all with a range of abilities, were canoeing on Lake George. Mother Nature even played along, and gave us back the sun for our great adventure.
12:50 PM. It hit me. I knew why I wasn’t afraid for my crew! It made perfect sense. Don’t we feel the safest when we are surrounded by people with integrity? Can’t we feel it when people are being genuine?
Those yellow capped leaders, with their inspirational van wrap and even-keeled personalities, weren’t some manufactured act of altruism constructed by a corporate body looking to improve their image in the public eye. Nope. Wilderness Inquiry was the real deal.
They were young adults who love the outdoor experience so much they want to share it people who might otherwise miss out.
1:30 PM: My friend George returned his flotation device to the pile. He was one of the folks I would have bet against getting into a canoe. For George, there is comfort and safety in the power to refuse new experiences. It’s an instinct of self-preservation, for he’s a wobbly guy who feels unsafe on rough terrain. But here he is floating across the grass after floating across the lake.
So, is crow best served grilled? Or broiled? Mind you, I harbor no shame for my initial resistance. It’s my job to keep them safe, and my Search team takes that responsibility very seriously.
But I wasn’t alone on Lake George that day. There was a whole team out there holding the net when we asked people to step outside of their comfort zones. Search, Inc and Wilderness Inquiry became a unified team with one simple mission: to create a great big outdoor adventure for folks with disabilities.
2:00 PM: I became a believer.
So, Wilderness Inquiry. What’s next?
In May, thanks to our good partners at Toad&Co and Wilderness Inquiry, 75 men and women in Search’s Supported Living Program were given the opportunity to canoe down Lake George in Indiana - a first for almost every person invited.
Search spent a total of four days in Northern Indiana, bringing a different group of 25 people each day. We were honored that two local publications, the Post-Tribune and The Times of Northwest Indiana, chose to cover our “canoepalooza.”
You can read the Post-Tribune article here: http://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-canoemobile-in-hobart-st-0506-20160506-story.html
And please click here to read The Times of Northwest Indiana article: http://www.nwitimes.com/lifestyles/leisure/hobart-s-lake-george-brings-joy-to-adults-with-disabilities/article_7d6c54e1-10ec-5423-8f1f-1bf441d0112b.html
This amazing opportunity was made possible by a grant Toad&Co gave to the National Park Service for the purpose of sending 1,000 adults with disabilities to national parks in 2016, in celebration of the National Park Service centennial. The Canoemobile, a fleet of 24-foot Voyager canoes, operated by Wilderness Inquiry is traveling across the country to connect folks to the national parks by getting them into canoes and out onto America's great rivers and lakes.