To be bewildered, amazed and humbled by nature is a phenomenon that most of us are familiar with. Nature in its purest form is a compelling force that provides profound lessons about our place on this planet. It pushes our boundaries. It challenges our definition of comfort. But most importantly, nature can help us realize what we're capable of. The concept of personal growth through outdoor activity and the chance to share that experience with others is what allures many of us to become Backroads leaders. It's also what inspires many leaders to volunteer to help make these experiences accessible to underserved populations.
There are countless nonprofit organizations that recognize the power of getting outside to enrich our lives. Kim Masdeo has been a leader in the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone region for the past two years and has also worked with children with special needs since 2005. When an opportunity arose to volunteer for the iCan Shine bike camp hosted by Teton Adaptive Sports (TAS), she immediately jumped at it. At camp, young people with disabilities learn to ride an adaptable two-wheel bike designed to increase balance and spatial awareness. Handles on the back of the bike allow Kim and other volunteers to run behind the rider and assist. This was the first of Kim's many wonderful experiences with TAS.
After two summers of volunteering, Kim has participated in many other events, including Yoga in the Park, led by an instructor with a prosthetic leg. She's lead overnight camping trips and rock climbing events, where one of the young participants even belayed her! In turn, Kim's life is also enriched by the kids she serves: "Volunteering with Teton Adaptive Sports not only lets me be an active member of the Jackson community, but it's allowed me to connect with a group of people that share the same values. When working with students with special needs, our philosophy emphasizes the importance of inclusion, equal opportunities, second chances and plenty of encouraging words to help them reach their personal goals."
Other leaders, like Leandra Bitterfeld, take advantage of the winter months to work with similar organizations that value inclusion in outdoor activities. Inspired by the beauty of the mountains, Leandra moved to Aspen, Colorado, for the winter. When she discovered Challenge Aspen, an organization that helps individuals with a wide range of disabilities learn to ski, she immediately wanted to get involved.
As a ski instructor with Challenge Aspen, Leandra has found the mountain to be a great equalizer, a place where all are humbled by its sheer power and immensity.
The mountain setting empowers the individuals she works with to simply be skiers who are not be defined by their disabilities. According to Leandra, "The outdoors is one of the most incredible and abundant learning resources that we have. It teaches us creativity, strength and problem solving. It can teach us to be comfortable being alone or how to work with others. Everyone should have access to the great teacher that is the outdoors."
Like Leandra, I have a special admiration for the mountains that, as my mother affectionately claims, rivals Maria's in The Sound of Music. Although I'm not often compelled to frolic through meadows and burst out into song (unless it snows 18 inches overnight), I'm happiest on my snowboard. I love how feeling balanced, in control, confident and creative on my snowboard has translated to my life off of the slopes. There's no better setting for empowering and inspiring others than the very place that has done the same for me. And nothing gives me greater joy than being a part of SOS Outreach, an organization that allows me to work with at-risk kids in Denver.
SOS Outreach is a youth development program that places underserved kids with mentors for outdoor experiential learning. Throughout the winter program we snowboard and reflect on six core values: courage, discipline, integrity, wisdom, compassion and humility. I mentor six amazing high school students who really take these values to heart. They have extraordinary drive to improve themselves both on and off the slopes and have set both academic and athletic goals for the year. We also participate in service projects to witness the importance of giving back to the community, exemplifying both compassion and humility.
I'm boundlessly thankful for the opportunities I've had to get outside and be active, a sentiment that's common among Backroads leaders. Whether we're sharing our passion with trip guests or helping to make the outdoors more accessible to everyone, one thing is certain: we love to help others be moved by nature.