A new approach to find out what’s really in you

IT’S 2:30 IN THE AFTERNOON on a cold, grey, rainy day, and I’m sitting in the Outward Bound Canada (OBC) program room at Toronto’s Evergreen Brick Works with Jess, a high-spirited young woman with
perhaps the widest, brightest smile I have ever seen. I’ve just told her that redheads
are regarded as “majestic unicorns” and she lets out a peel of laughter.

Jess and the rest of the March of Dimes LIFE (Learning Independence for Future Empowerment) participants who are at OBC for the day are now busy with their wrap-up activities, blogging, cataloguing pictures and making a video of their adventures. Soon, their Wheel-Trans buses will arrive to take them home.

I’ve pulled Jess aside for an interview. A university graduate who attended the first 10-week session of the LIFE program, Jess was invited back by the March of Dimes for the third session as a peer mentor and program ambassador. It is a responsibility she takes very seriously. “Jess is taking more of a leadership role this time around,” says Rob Wallis, Education Coordinator for Outward Bound Canada. “She has really stepped up to the plate and is encouraging the others.”

It’s a fitting compliment for a young woman with cerebral palsy that shared an hour in the field last week with her LIFE friends. “Playing T-ball out of my wheelchair and running the bases was my biggest challenge this session,” Jess tells me by typing with one finger into her DynaVox. “I was very proud.”

Jess, now 27, has been using a wheelchair since she was a little girl. “And you ran the bases?” I ask, falling prey to the familiar ‘you can’t do that’ attitude that has dogged her for almost three decades. “With support,” she types, and I kick myself, hard, under the table. “All my life I’ve been told what I can’t do because of my disability,” she continues. “But since coming here, I’ve learned that I can do more than people think I can.” Including herself. Especially herself. And that’s the underpinning philosophy of both OBC and LIFE.

Never Say Never

“The philosophy of Outward Bound Canada is that there’s more in you than you know,” says Rob. “The founder of OBC, Kurt Hahn, believed in learning by doing, and that you can only find out what you’re truly capable of by getting yourself into unfamiliar—and sometimes uncomfortable—situations. That fits perfectly with the folks in the program, who are so used to being told they can’t do things.” Through a combination of life skills workshops, social outings, conductive education and Outward Bound Canada programming based around healthy active living, the participants get to find out just how much they can do. And it surprises everyone.

“We started in March 2013 with a pilot program,” says Rob. One of them was
Usman. “He had never really walked before, just transferred between chairs, and he was very nervous when he came to us,” Rob recalls. “He saw all these pictures of people climbing and canoeing, and his reaction was, ‘I can’t do that.’ Now he arrives in his chair in the morning and he wants to spend all day out of it!”

Allen, 23, registered for the second session and returned for the third. “I’ve been blown away by Allen,” says Rob. “During his first session, he was quite subdued, and it was difficult to get him to engage. He didn’t smile a lot. Now he’s laughing and joking and striking up conversations around the table. Now he’s the one who instigates. Allen has become a leader in that respect, and he’s really missed if he doesn’t turn up.”

Harnessing Resilience and Taking Risks

The key, says Rob, is to not adapt the program too much. “When we challenge the participants to do more, they do more,” he says. “They’re not afraid of failing, so why should we be afraid for them?”
“If they don’t take risks and challenge themselves, they’re never going to learn.”
Some adaptation has been necessary for this outdoor adventure program, and informal partnerships with organizations including Toronto’s Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, TETRA Society of Ontario and Adventure Works in Ancaster, Ontario, have resulted in equipment loans of specialized bikes, trail riders and climbing gear so participants can enjoy the Don Valley trail system and OBC’s climbing town.

“For most of our participants, just being outside is a really big deal in different kinds of weather,” says Rob. “It’s very easy to stay inside, especially when it’s raining, but when you challenge yourself to go out you learn a lot about your personal resilience.” This is reinforced with a visit to the 65-foot climbing tower, the granddaddy of all OBC challenges.

“We’ve developed different ways of using the tower that aren’t based on muscle strength,” explains Rob, “such as using another participant as a counterweight to reinforce the principles of teamwork and trust.” Again, the participants have had to readjust their challenge paradigm. “We had to stop thinking about the top and lose our attitude of ‘If you don’t make it all the way, you’ve failed.’ Instead, we set more realistic goals.” And again, the LIFErs surprised. “Everyone who showed up on Challenge Tower Day made it to the top.”

The Little Engine That Could

One of those successful climbers is 24-year-old Princess, a self-professed “shy, nervous person” who has become “more adventurous and outgoing” since coming to OBC. “Four people climbed the tower before me, and I wasn’t sure I could do it. When it was my turn they strapped me into the harness and I went up the ladder. I was like the Little Train that Could—‘I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.’ And I did! I was 65 feet in the air and looking down on everyone!”
As for the group’s enthusiasm? “That’s never a challenge,” says Rob, laughing.

Like him, I cannot imagine an unexcited Jess. She has not stopped moving and smiling and laughing since I walked into the room more than two hours ago. This is a young woman who is full of LIFE—a young woman who is just starting to tap into her potential and is clearly delighted by what she is discovering.

“So where do you go from here?” I ask her, as our time together draws to a close. “I like volunteering with kids who have autism,” she types. “I would like to keep doing that.” “Fantastic!” I tell her. “My daughter has autism and she would love you.”

“I am going to keep trying to push myself to be as independent as possible,” she continues. “Eventually I want to move out on my own. And …” Here, Jess pauses, flashing me her million-dollar smile, and turns the DynaVox toward me so I can read each word as it comes up on the screen. “… I am never going to stop challenging myself and trying new things.”

For more information, visit outwardbound.ca.

Tracey Coveart is a writer, editor and mother of three. She has a daughter with autism, global developmental delay and epilepsy.

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