Recreation and Leisure Studies
I was an assistant back country ranger for the Alaska State Parks, about an hour north of Anchorage. I lived at Red Shirt Lake, a three mile hike from the trail head to my cabin. I was there for four months, completing an internship to graduate from the Recreation and Leisure Studies department at California State University, Long Beach. I read books about the Athabaskans and ate berries and made spruce tea. I hiked and learned how to use a four stroke motorboat. I got all my drinking water from a lake, built outhouses, participated in a search and rescue, hazed a black bear from my cabin, caught, cleaned and cooked four different types of fish, helped to harness a dog sled team, drove the Denali Highway, and learned how fragile string trimmers are when faced with miles and miles of Alaskan wildlife while clearing trails. Officially, I maintained four cabins, a campground, and relationships between visitors, private land users, and the state park system. Now that I am home, I am the Access to Adventure Coordinator with Project Independence, a non-profit organization working with adults with developmental disabilities. How did a summer in the Alaska outback influence my career choice? My internship experience did that in two ways. First, it made the benefits of recreation and travel unavoidably obvious. Second, what I gained from my experience in Alaska drove me to help others experience the same benefits, especially for populations that tend to be overlooked.
The benefits of recreation and travel are endless, and affect us emotionally, physically, spiritually, and mentally. My summer in Alaska was one long list of these benefits. For example, the sweat soaked feeling of accomplishment of stripping a birch log of bark to use as support for a cabin. The constant presence of calculated risk as I hiked through devil’s club and spruce trees, waiting for moose to run in front of me at any time. There was also the feeling of self-sufficiency, knowing that I have prepared for potential hazards. I made friends with Alaska natives and rangers who taught me the history of Alaska and the issues facing the state today. New muscles were formed from hiking, building, digging, painting, and repairing. Watching every day as roses fell, raspberries ripened, and currants stayed tart until the end of time. What did I get from these moments? Peace, self-sufficiency, adventure, confidence, satisfaction, a change of pace, exposure, a sense of self, introspection, self-awareness, knowledge regarding the use of tools and equipment, factual information about the flora and fauna, a sense of survival, new friends, understanding of other cultures, and so much more.
Recreation and travel enrich our lives. Most of us are lucky enough to have had the opportunity to figure that out for ourselves. There is one population, however, that falls through the cracks. Historically, people with developmental disabilities (for example, autism, downs syndrome, mental retardation, and cerebral palsy) have been treated in many negative ways; ridiculed, ostracized, placed in group homes or workshop settings where they are kept away from the community, and ignored. These attitudes, either because of hostility or negligence, have created barriers for this population to enrich their lives with recreational opportunities.
As Access to Adventure Coordinator, it is my job to provide trips and events for a population that thrives on community integration. My job is to give clients, who, with a lack of resources, tend to stay inside and watch TV, the increase in their quality of life that the rest of us have experienced when we meet new people, try a new food, or see a breath taking view for the first time. My goal is to provide recreation and travel opportunities that challenge, excite, and entertain at an affordable price, keeping in mind the needs of our consumers. We have gone to Sea World, Disneyland, horseback riding on a ranch in Arizona, Washington DC, a cruise to Mexico, to plays and musicals, dancing, and more. Some of my clients use wheelchairs; some of them have short term memory loss. Some clients have trouble walking, some have trouble talking. For some people, planning trips or activities can seem daunting when faced with the particular needs of my clients. However, no matter what the disability, the benefits of recreation, leisure, and travel still apply, and are even more of a necessity for someone who has had few opportunities for such activities.
I feel as though I have found my niche, the job that makes me light up just to talk about it. Although I am working in a very different environment as Access to Adventure Coordinator than I was during my time in Alaska, I have found that recreation and travel opportunities can be found everywhere, for everyone. There is nothing more rewarding than watching the faces of my clients as they get splashed by Shamu at Sea World, or as they plan and anticipate their upcoming trip to London. In fact, I am taking a group of forty adults with a wide range of abilities to Alaska this June – a full circle for me, from internship experience to career choice.