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Filled With Confidence

Reprinted from SNS November 2018

Camp Discovery is empowering female wheelchair users to try new sports while building lifelong friendships

S’mores, campfires and sing-alongs may come to mind when most people think about summer camp, but Camp Discovery offers even more than that for women who use wheelchairs for mobility. 

Each year for the last decade, a group of women has gathered in the mountains of Empire, Colo., just west of Denver seeking to break out of their comfort zones and make friends with other women who are in a similar situation. For three days, they get a taste of activities ranging from rock climbing, sailing, scuba diving and go-kart racing to yoga, handcycling, horseback riding and kayaking.

Trish Downing from Denver, a former competitive cyclist who sustained a T4 spinal-cord injury (SCI) in 2000 when she was hit by a car while training, started the camp in 2009 with the help of a grant from the Avon company. To date, the camp has served over 80 women from 20 states and one woman from Canada.

After her injury, Downing began competing in para triathlon and became the first female paraplegic to finish an iron-distance triathlon. The 48-year-old also qualified in 2006 and 2010 for the Hawaii Ironman, competed in rowing and made the USA shooting team for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics.

“I didn’t have a hard time getting back into sports, but I could see where it could be a very intimidating process for people who either weren’t very good at taking initiative or who weren’t involved in sports prior to their injury or who were still sort of intimidated by the injury itself,” Downing says. “I wasn’t seeing a lot of women at the events I was doing, whether they were races or camps or clinics, so I just wanted to make an unintimidating environment for women to be able to get involved.”

Downing gathered other adaptive clubs and partners such as Adaptive Adventures and Challenged Athletes Foundation, as well as a team of board members and volunteers, including physical and occupational therapists, to help her run the camp. She also formed a nonprofit called The Cycle of Hope two years ago to help raise the needed $1,000-$1,500 per camper.

First-time campers pay just $100, which covers all activities, lodging and all meals and snacks. A female companion or caregiver may also attend camp for an additional $100 but can’t participate in the activities.

Creating A Bond

For the first couple of years, campers stayed at hotels in the Denver area and participated in activities at local parks and recreational facilities. Now, the camp headquarters is the Rocky Mountain Village, a fully staffed Easterseals property. 

“The Easterseals location is outdoors. It’s in the mountains. It’s beautiful. It’s totally accessible,” Downing says. “We all stay in one big lodge together, and it’s got six accessible bathrooms in it and a kitchen and a common area we can all hang out in.”

Downing says having an all-female group makes it easier for campers to get to know one another and build a support system.

“I think everybody is able to be more vulnerable and be able to not be afraid of making a mistake,” Downing says. “They don’t think, ‘Oh my gosh, what are the guys going to think of me if I can’t do this?’ You know, and they’re so encouraging of each other and they really create a bond. It’s something that can’t happen when you’ve got both men and women. They can act more like themselves, and I just think it’s a more open mental, emotional and physical atmosphere when it’s just a women’s camp.”

There are typically anywhere from 15 to 18 campers, with a mix of new and returning campers, new and old injuries and ages ranging from 21 to 76 years old. The women also have a range of impairments, from low-level SCIs and low quadriplegic injuries to cerebral palsy, spina bifida and muscular dystrophy.

Some of the activities at this year’s camp held in August included rock climbing, wheelchair tennis, aerial yoga, swimming, competitive shooting, wheelchair basketball and a wheelchair equipment demonstration.

In addition to a wide variety of sports that are rotated every year, campers can participate in personal development activities such as vision boards, working with a personal coach, massages, painting and improv classes. They also have an opportunity to attend seminars on dating, sex and pregnancy, pain management, bowel and bladder issues and holistic health. 

Special additions for the 10th anniversary this year were a clothing swap, fashion show with makeup and headshots and a mocktail party.

“We really pack a ton into the weekend. The campers when they leave are like, ‘This was fun, but I’m exhausted!’” Downing says. “Really, that’s the biggest thing we hear on our evaluations is that it was so much fun, but there was so much packed into a weekend. But at the same time, we’re only going to see people once a year. We want to make sure they go home with activities that they can do with their spouse or their kids or their friends or find a local program where they can refine their skills and get better at doing whatever it is they want to do.”


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