The Joy of Helping the Disabled Paddle
Photos courtesy of Nancy Hill copyright 2017
What is it that brings joy into your life? Watching the birth of a child? Visiting exotic places? Volunteering for a non-profit organization? Anyone who knows me knows I love to paddle, so much so that each year I host paddle trips at no cost so people can discover the beauty of Oregon from a kayak or canoe. But that isn’t what brings me the greatest joy. That joy comes each August when I combine my love of paddling with my love for helping those with physical and mental disabilities.
Each August the Tualatin Riverkeepers (TRK) holds its adaptive paddle event on the Tualatin River. This past August was its third year holding the event, which I helped restart after a long hiatus. During the first two years, the event focused on taking disabled people out on the river for a three-hour paddle.
TRK had a good turnout the first year it held the event. Some participants who showed up were severely disabled—one suffered from cystic fibrosis and had to have her ventilator tucked under the front deck of a tandem kayak in which she rode. Other participants were amputees, stroke victims, and learning impaired. It was great to see the joyous expressions of people who spend much of their lives confined to wheelchairs once they were on the water and paddling a kayak.
To my disappointment, the second year wasn’t nearly as strongly attended, possibly due to a lack of publicity. Those who did attend had a great time.
Following last year's low turnout, TRK decided earlier this year to make the event more of a clinic instead of a paddle and to host a barbecue as part of the event. Participation from the public greatly increased at this year’s event. Even though it was more of a clinic than a paddle, TRK still held a paddle trip, leading paddlers from Cook Park in Tigard to nearly the Hwy 99W bridge and back. A friend of mine who was serving as a safety boater remarked to me after the paddle that she had a hard time keeping up with the paddlers. It was like the freedom from wheelchairs, crutches, and canes was invigorating.
Another change this year is that TRK teamed up with Adventures Without Limits (AWL) who helped cosponsor the event. AWL had teamed with TRK the two previous years but more in a supportive role of providing equipment adapted to those with disabilities. This year they provided all the boats, modified paddles, and much of the staff to help.
Anyone can paddle, as the first year showed, but participants do need specially adapted equipment. Many cannot simply use equipment right off the shelf. Some don’t have the use of an arm due to a stroke, so there are paddles adapted to allow those individuals to paddle using only one arm. Some with muscular and neurological disorders require foam padding to help keep them sitting upright in the boat. In some cases, their medical condition doesn’t allow them to paddle, but they can still sit in a canoe or kayak and enjoy a day on the water.
Research has shown that paddling is therapeutic and can help people suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), autism, and other medical conditions. Because of the low-impact workout, it’s great for those who have skeletal or muscular issues tone unaffected muscles.
The Tualatin River provides a great venue for taking people who in many cases are unable to swim because of their condition. The river’s slow, shallow water with little motorized boat traffic reduces the dangers of capsizing. Not that capsizing can’t happen, and in the remote event that it does, there are many safety boaters on the water to rescue people. And all participants are required to wear a personal flotation device (lifejacket) because TRK takes safety seriously.
At the close of this year’s event, a young man who suffers from a learning disability approached me and asked me if he could give me a hug. I said yes. It was the greatest thank you I had ever received, and to see the big smile and joy on his face was so rewarding. This man had so much fun that his mother said they would be back next year.
Seeing the joy and thanks from the participants at this event is what brings me great joy and keeps me going year after year to help run the event. Moreover, I get to involve my love of paddling as well.
Consider volunteering with TRK by visiting their website at www.tualatinriverkeepers.org, and you, too, can experience that joy.