What follows is a guest essay by Doug Fitzgerald of the Adirondack Forest Preserve Education Partnership (AFPEP). Fitzgerald, a licensed guide, retired in 2010 after 26 years at the Department of Conservation’s Division of Operations as a Conservation Supervisor. Fitzgerald is also Scoutmaster Emeritus for Boy Scouts of America Troop 12 in Paul Smiths.
Recreation plays a valuable role in our lives. Getting outdoors and having fun are not luxuries; they are a necessary part of life. The benefits of recreation include physical fitness, good health, self-worth, joy, friendship and an appreciation for the environment. Playing outdoors enhances our lives through increased enjoyment and learning.
For people with disabilities, these benefits are equally important. Positive recreational experiences can be life changing. My son John is a perfect example, here is his story.
By the age of nine months it became evident that John would have some level of disability in his life; developmental disabilities for sure and probably some physical limitations as well. John is the youngest of three boys in our active outdoor family who lives in the Adirondacks. He was a handful and by the age of three it was evident that getting him outdoors and moving around was crucial. Indoors, he was hyperactive and challenging, but put him in the middle of a canoe on an Adirondack pond and he was calm and happy.
Our family loved to be outdoors pursuing physical and recreational activities. His brothers found great joy in skiing at the town slope, but for John, the commotion of the ski area was hard to process. While the older boys skied, John and I found other things to occupy our time. It was a family divided until his brothers convinced John to give the skis a try. Before long the joy of the sport took hold and he was skiing and riding the lift independently. Recognizing his new abilities, peers took notice of him for the first time.
Growing up skiing at a small local hill can lead to a lifetime sport and advancement to bigger more challenging mountains. John soon discovered the joy of skiing at new places. He learned how to research by searching for information on other ski areas, first through brochures and later the internet. At school, teachers and aides found they could engage him in academics by relating lessons to skiing and ski areas. On the slopes John learned about safety, communication and physical fitness. He developed his motor skills and self-control, but mostly he discovered independence for the first time in his life. As John became trusted to take safe solo runs his independence grew. Today in his mid twenties, John is an expert skier. He has a season pass at Whiteface Mountain and drives himself there when he can’t find a ride or anyone else to go with.
While downhill skiing has had a tremendous impact on John’s life, he is also a skilled river paddler and has participated in several extended wilderness expeditions. The lessons learned through recreation have helped him achieve success in many other aspects. He is an Eagle Scout and a blood donor. He was a varsity athlete and completed high school. He is a valued employee, trusted friend, community volunteer and an all around great person. John also appreciates the environment and understands the importance of protecting it.
John’s story is one of many. Everyday, people of all abilities enhance their lives through fun outdoor activities. Whether it is paddling, hiking, fishing, or one of many other opportunities, the benefits that outdoor recreation offers for people with disabilities are numerous. Explore the possibilities; search out things to do, places to go and experiences to discover.
Enjoying the out of doors can be simple. It does not have to be a daring adventure. Begin with energy and enthusiasm to create a positive environment. Initiate the planning process by asking some easy questions: What do we want to do? Who needs to be involved? What supports need to be in place? Then step into action. Starting small and building on successes are effective ways to kick off any new venture. Helping people discover the joy of outdoor recreation begins the same way. At the end of an activity, the spirit of success is captured when something like “the next time we go…” is heard. Positive outdoor experiences are worth repeating and can lead to a lifetime of enjoyment and learning.
Connecting people to nature through outdoor recreation is an enriching experience. No matter what your ability may be, find a way to get outside and have some fun.
This guest essay was contributed by the Adirondack Forest Preserve Education Partnership, a coalition of Adirondack organizations building on the Leave No Trace philosophy. Their goal is to provide public education about the Forest Preserve and Conservation Easements with an emphasis on how to safely enjoy, share, and protect these unique lands. To learn more about AFPEP visit www.adirondackoutdoors.org.