Including Everyone in the Adventure: Outdoor Sports at YC

Outdoor recreation is in YC’s DNA. With her experience as an adapted ski instructor, Mary Sue Tanis brought her love of the outdoors and passion for “equal play” to Youth Challenge when she founded the organization in 1976. Youth Challenge began with a group of neighborhood teens playing in a backyard pool and neighborhood parks. Fast forward 45 years, and that same appreciation for the outdoors is ingrained in what we do every day.

As challenging as the past two years have been, the COVID era has brought about even more outdoor programming opportunities for our participants and volunteers to discover the magic of the great outdoors. Some of our most popular programs are the most unconventional—archery, handcycling, kayaking, trail orienteering, and even fishing for walleye in a Grady-White boat on Lake Erie. Whatever the program, the YC Gang loves to spend as much time as possible outside.

Youth Challenge is lucky to be surrounded by the Cleveland Metroparks, where participants and volunteers can explore nature and discover new activities. The Metroparks has made great strides towards becoming a more accessible and inclusive destination for all in recent years. This summer, YC spent an afternoon on Wallace Lake in Berea fishing and kayaking with the help of the Metropark’s adaptive equipment.

If an activity seems impossible for our participants to partake in, this merely motivates us to try it out! Take the Ledges Trail—a 2.2-mile loop in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park known for its striking cliff ledges, rock-hewn steps, and bumpy terrain—one of the most inaccessible trails in Northeast Ohio. At first glance, a hike like this seems unconquerable for someone with a mobility impairment.

Thanks to adaptive hiking chairs, called Joëlettes, and a group from Luke 5 Adventures, the YC gang got to experience the full grandeur of the Ledges Trail. Luke 5 Adventures, a volunteer group that helps people with disabilities go hiking, partnered with YC last summer to take four young adult participants on a fantastic adventure in the park. YC alumna Jane Rapp gave the hike “a 10 out of 10” and said she’d “never experienced anything like this before.”

The Joëlette allows people who use wheelchairs and other mobility aids to access the bottom of waterfalls and the peak of mountains. A grant to Youth Challenge from the Shining Light Charitable Corporation will go toward purchasing a Joëlette that will allow YC participants to hike the challenging trails for years to come.

As everyone prepares to hunker down indoors for another cold, Cleveland winter, Team YC is already dreaming up what our next big outdoor adventures will be.