Saturday, February 24, 2018

All in Stride, Handicapable Boating

February 1, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 


Living with any type of disability presents numerous challenges in everyday life, such as being excluded from enjoyable activities like going for a swim or paddling a kayak. Recognizing that, STRIDE was created to help those with handicaps enjoy sports and overcome (emotional and physical) barriers.

Mary Ellen Whitney was an adaptive physical education teacher working with special needs youths in public schools during the 1980s. She quickly realized that an inequality existed in extra-curricular programs: her students had few choices after school, so Whitney’s personal mission became to make a difference.  She gathered some friends, and they began teaching her students to ski.

The concept of increasing physical opportunities grew, and in 1985 Whitney created the non-profit foundation STRIDE Adaptive Sports (, headquartered in Rensselaer, New York. Through its efforts, today there are over 1,300 athletes and family members, 350 volunteers, and 16 sports offered at 26 locations in three states. STRIDE’s main focus is not on team sports, but on activities that participants can enjoy over a lifetime, such as boating and swimming.  Such activities can be done alone, or without many other people, but may also enhance and encourage quality family time.  Whitney, who acts as Chief Executive Officer, says, “Water is a life force that promotes healing and growth, and is therefore extremely helpful to the handicapped.”

About eight years ago, youth-oriented STRIDE was asked to help out the Wounded Warriors program, whose mission is to encourage empowerment and engagement of injured service members. Youth programs such as sailing and kayaking now include war veterans. The veterans both enjoy water activities such as kayaking, whitewater rafting, swimming, and canoeing, and serve as important mentors to the younger participants. Whitney proclaims that the addition of the Wounded Warriors was “just short of miraculous.” Dedicated volunteers were often hard to find, and the veterans supplied a powerful combination of experience, eagerness, and encouragement to younger members afraid to participate in water sports. And, in the process, all became more empowered.

During the annual Wounded Warrior Boot Camp retreat at the STRIDE campsite in Chatham, New York, the service members and children have three goals: learning, healing, and having fun with one another.  Prior to arriving, pairs are introduced via e-mail and are encouraged to communicate with each other. The weekend includes campfires stories, kayaking, whitewater rafting, and building bonds. SFC (retired) Tracy Evans escorted his STRIDE athlete, Noah Cooperman, everywhere. As Cooperman has autism and is on a restricted diet, Evans prepared him a special, gluten-free chocolate and peanut butter sandwich.  Such bonding experiences serve as both a therapeutic and a learning experience for the veterans and the children.

Water activities offer great motivation and opportunity for the disabled to overcome their fears, according to Whitney. Each spring, STRIDE athletes at least 13 years of age meet in North Creek, New York to ride the rapids of the upper Hudson River, a top-rated whitewater rafting run. Its swim program offers six 10-week sessions per year of an American Red Cross-affiliated swim instruction program, catered to the skill level of each individual, and involving family members who may be asked to assist in the water. “Team Stingray,” STRIDES’s swim team, participates in the New York Special Olympics competitions several times every year, and its sailing program boasts of a one-of-a-kind classroom and hands-on eight-week curriculum adapted from the American Red Cross and U.S. Sailing “Start Sailing Right” manual. Classes are run by certified sailing instructors and are held at either Saratoga Lake Sailing Club or New Rochelle Marina. Boats are adapted to meet individual learning needs as STRIDE athletes learn to sail rigged sloops leading up to an annual regatta on Saratoga Lake.

Training is an important part of any STRIDE activity (Whitney stresses that the organization has “an impeccable safety record”). There are guidelines and policies in place to ensure that certified leaders train volunteers.

For differently-abled people who are reluctant to participate, Whitney recommends that they start by watching others participate in water activities. After all, says this woman whose efforts have enabled those without limbs to climb mountains and explore underwater, “We live in a time where technology allows anyone with a disability to participate in any sport, and the status quo has been challenged by removing boundaries and breaking down barriers of ignorance and attitude that can block the path of independence for individuals.”

By Jennifer Pollock


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