Adventures in joy: an interview with Go For It! instructors
Since the early years of Summit Adventure’s foundation, Tim Hansel instituted an adaptive program which still runs today, known as our Go For It! course. The course allows for individuals with physical and intellectual disabilities to engage in outdoor adventure activities, led by a team of instructors. During the summer 2015 Go For It!, a group of instructors teamed up with three participants–Justin, Jack, and Shawn–to take them base-camping in Nelder Grove, day-hiking in the midst of Giant Sequoias, assisted rock-climbing on Willow Creek Wall, swimming at Bass Lake, and on a day trip to Yosemite National Park, among other activities. Throughout their time together, the instructors found that the participants impacted them with a significance that perhaps surpassed their impact on the participants. In the following interview, instructors Gretchen Heim, Daniel Hiebert, and Christie Taylor recount the events of the course and the various discoveries they made along the way.
Briefly describe the three participants.
Daniel: Justin is friends with everyone, even if he’s never met them in his life. He’s a ladies’ man. He’s just full of joy, he likes doing fun things even if he’s not sure that it’s gonna turn out okay, [though] sometimes he gets a little anxious. He’s a really funny, funny guy.
Gretchen: I think [Justin] has a really good sense of humor, too. Like, he has these little phrases that he said throughout the course and he always timed perfectly.
Christie: [Justin’s] been coming [to Go For It!] for ten or eleven years, and, of the years I’ve been here, this is the first time I’ve seen him go all the way to the top of the climbing site. It was pretty significant to see him get all the way up there.
Justin at the campsite in Nelder Grove
Gretchen: Jack brought the most laughter, for me, to the trip. He thinks, like, everything is funny, which makes you always want him around because he will always laugh at anything, even if it’s not really a joke.
Daniel: Yeah, [Jack] was a lot more talkative this year than he was last year. I don’t know if it was like the smaller group or he just had decided or grown more socially, but it was really cool to see him be willing to talk to people and want to engage in conversation, even though it’s not easy for us or him to try to do that.
Christie: [Jack’s] very affectionate; he loves to give people hugs–
Me: I loved how he would go around and hug everyone before going to bed.
Jack (right) at Willow Creek Wall
Daniel: Shawn is just, like, the buddy–of everyone. He’s everyone’s bud.
Gretchen: And ready for anything; with Justin and Jack, they got bored of some things quickly, but Shawn never expressed that anything was ever boring…
Daniel: Yeah, when we were on the Shadow of the Giants trail, he just [turned around and] gave us two thumbs up, it was pretty funny.
Gretchen: Kind of a guy of few words.
Christie: But when he laughs, he laughs hard.
Daniel: …And also he knows [the movie] Aladdin by heart. *laughs* Very impressive.
Shawn climbing Willow Creek Wall
What sort of expectations did you have going into the course?
Daniel: I was anxious about moving Justin around [with his wheelchair]–because it’s a big job and we had not even half the amount of people we had last year to do it. …But it worked out fine–it was really cool to see that we were capable of doing that.
Christie: Something I was excited for was that the course tends to be one that we get a lot of joy from–just a lot of laughter, and doing silly things. [It’s] always exciting to see their view on life and get to participate in that.
What are some of the ways that you modify the adventure activities, specifically, the rock-climbing?
Daniel: The set up is different than we’d usually do it. We don’t have them do a traditional support school (or belay school); we have an assisted braking belay device at the top [of the climb], on each anchor…so that all they have to do is pull on the rope in order to belay their friends up. …If they’re struggling, you can give them a little extra boost fairly easily, just by pulling on the rope. And then with Justin, who doesn’t really have much function in his legs, we have two guys attached to the rope above him, and basically they pull him up the rock by any means necessary. We throw some elbow-pads and kneepads on him to help him not get scraped up. …And then someone’s at the top using a Gri-gri to lower the participant back down onto the ground.
Justin (center) rock-climbing, with assistance from Lead Instructor Daniel Hiebert (left) and oLITE Intern Jake Tuttle (right)
Any other activities that you modify?
Christie: When we went swimming, we brought a raft for Justin and Jack to sit in…that way, they could be out in the water with us.
Gretchen: I think [a main aspect is] just being aware of things we can do that everyone can be a part of. Like, there’s some places that we could have gone to, like the river in Yosemite, but it would have been harder to get everyone in the same place, just because the guys have different abilities with how they can get down steeper grades. So just being aware of those [varying abilities]…is a modification I think we [used] during the trip.
What was the best moment or experience, either one that you observed, or for you?
Daniel: My favorite moment was after we got Justin to the top [of the rock climb], we were bringing him down and he wanted to take breaks every now and then, so we would, and [our oLITE Intern] Jake made a joke, [saying,] “Oh we’re just gonna play some cards real fast, we’ll come down when we’re done”–so, we played some cards *holds his hands up as pretend playing cards*, imaginary Go Fish. And…[the next time] Justin said “stop,” he put his hands up like we were playing cards again, so we played some more imaginary Go Fish and it was really fun.
Participants Justin (bottom right) and Shawn (center) on a day-hike through Nelder Grove with Lead Instructor Daniel Hiebert (left) and oLITE Intern Jake Tuttle (right).
Gretchen: My favorite part was when we were all sitting around the campfire, and I think we were singing or something–everyone was being really loud, which can be fun, but sometimes it’s nice to be in peace and quiet, so I did this listening activity that I did with my 5th and 6th graders at [the outdoor education program at] Calvin Crest. …I asked everyone to stay quiet and try to listen to the natural noises around them…and I was really impressed with everyone, how they stayed really quiet, and we got to hear the creek that we were camping next to, and the birds, and the crackling fire, and it was just really nice to have that peaceful moment with everyone.
Christie: One of my favorite parts was when Jack would get out his harmonica and everyone would be singing. …[I thought] it was really cool to see everyone come together through music…dancing and singing in the car, and around the campfire.
For a performance during the Talent Show at Summit’s Base, Jack (left) played harmonica and Shawn (right) played djembe as Assistant Instructors Kristen Narum and Cami Abernathy sang.
Why do you think running a course for individuals with physical and intellectual disabilities is important?
Gretchen: The Go For It! course [has] become my favorite course [through the] past three summers that I’ve been here. …I think it’s just really cool to be able to share these places that I really love and care about, with people who don’t get to do these things everyday.
Christie: I think we as [instructors] leading these courses probably get a lot more out of it than they do at times. So, each participant is assigned a buddy and we’re called “TABs,” which means “Temporarily Able-Bodied”–and that has always had a huge impact on me. …We’re used to being able to climb and run and hike and do all these things, [and] it really is a privilege to have these bodies to do that, but also realizing that it’s temporary; we’re not guaranteed that we can always have [our bodies]. I think it’s, in a way, a form of worship by being able to celebrate the bodies we’ve been given but also to see different bodies are given different gifts. …And I think it’s a really beautiful image of the body of Christ, how we’re all just so different and, whether we can walk or not…we are able to serve each other and love each other through our bodies. …And [Go For It!] is just a cool way to celebrate that, as opposed to our other courses where it’s easy to get caught up in taking those things for granted.
Daniel: Yeah I think this course is really cool, especially for the [participants], because they’re surrounded, usually, by either parents or their caretakers, and usually those people are significantly older than them…but when they come here…we’re all close to their age, so it’s kind of like friends going camping together, which I don’t think they really get a lot of–cause [usually] it’s more like, “I’m being taken care of by this person,” and instead it was like, “Hey, these are people that are similar in age and also similar in thought process.”…I think it’s cool that they get out from under their parents and are able to go do this thing by themselves, almost…there’s still people taking care of them, but [it’s] much less–obvious.
Instructor Gretchen Heim (left) and participant Jack (right) work together to set up a tent at the Nelder Grove campsite
What was something you learned from being a part of this course?
Daniel: I just learned joy. …If they think something is funny, they can laugh at it for ten minutes–if I think something’s funny, if I laugh at it for ten seconds, I’m like, “Whoa, it wasn’t that funny.” Their ability to find joy in the small things, and just keep that joy going, you know, it’s not like a fleeting moment. If they’re happy, they’re really happy, for a significant amount of time…they’re willing to show their emotions and not hide them.
Gretchen: Every time I go out on this course…I’m just reminded that we all have disabilities, in different ways. …They have this amazing ability to laugh and have joy and show their emotions and just feel things really deeply, and other people can’t do that. …So, they’re the same as us, they just have different things that they’re dealing with and going through, because we are all going through different things.
Christie: Yeah, going off of what Gretchen said…it’s ironic, to me, that they would be so limited physically yet they experience so much freedom; if Justin wants to fist-bump, like, 15 people at Lower Yosemite Falls, he feels the freedom to do that. Whereas, for us, we feel like, “Ah, that’s probably gonna be weird, I’m not gonna do that.” …And, again, we have different disabilities; sometimes it’s this inner bondage, and for other people it’s this outer bondage, and yeah–it’s interesting, to me, to see that.
Instructor Gretchen Heim and participant Justin share some laughter at the bridge below Lower Yosemite Falls