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The Blessings of an Alaska Adventure

FJV AmeriCorps member Nick Ponzetti (Sitka, ’12-’13) reflected on how the relationships and activities at Southeast Alaska Independent Living are making an impact, both on the community and on himself. Nick is now a student in the Doctor of Physical Therapy Program at The University of Washington. He noted that he continues “to be inspired by my work as a JV and I am passionate and committed to finding all the ways to connect my past experience with my future career.” As we enter into the holiday season, we at JVC Northwest are thankful for the many AmeriCorps members such as Nick who are making the world a better place, during and beyond their year of service.

Nick (far right in green shirt) floats in kayak with SAIL participants
Nick (far right in green shirt) floats in kayak with SAIL participants

July 14th, 2013, after a week and a half of drizzly, sleepy days, the sun punched through the clouds and kayak paddles slapped the smooth ocean water. Ten blades splashed cheerfully as a diverse group of paddlers embarked on a three-day journey celebrating four months of practice and hard work.

Southeast Alaska Independent Living (SAIL) offers a program specializing in making outdoor recreation accessible to everyone. The program, titled Outdoor Recreation and Community Access (ORCA) includes people of all ages and abilities. As Sitka’s Aging & Disability Resource Center and Independent Living Center, SAIL serves people from a wide-range of backgrounds, with a variety of needs. In 2013, our end-of-season kayak trip highlighted the diversity of people involved with SAIL. Twenty-year-olds joined people in their seventies. People with diabetes joined people with cognitive disabilities. In the end, people who enjoyed kayaking joined people who enjoy kayaking. We all bonded around the shared experience of accessing the outdoor adventures available in beautiful Southeast Alaska.

One of the trip's kayaks with a diabetes supplies kit on the deck
One of the trip’s kayaks with a diabetes supplies kit on the deck

As an Outdoor Recreation Coordinator, I have recognized the need for programs that generate genuine efficacy and self-satisfaction. If SAIL is to “inspire personal independence” -as our mission aspires- we need to provide activities offering more than just a fun and enjoyable afternoon. Challenge is an essential ingredient that helps people feel accomplished and proud of themselves. Through hiking and skiing, rock-climbing and camping I see people struggle. I see people give up. But most importantly, I see determination—and while it often takes many attempts and/or creativity to achieve the task, people gain something from the experience.

Two SAIL participants chat on the beach
Two SAIL participants chat on the beach

Nowhere was this more apparent than in our kayaking season. Ten different trainings and activities over four months challenged everyone’s perseverance. More than forty people participated. Ten people joined SAIL for an activity for the first time. A well-known disability rights advocate once spoke, “all any person with any disability wants is to have the same quality of life as anyone else.” When you imagine what any person would ask for in life it boils down to relationships and experiences. All we really need to live fully is a diversity of beautiful and engaging relationships and experiences. This is why being able to offer outdoor adventures to diverse groups of people can be so gratifyingly powerful. By making recreation accessible, we work to build experiences and relationships for people that, in turn, encourage people to live more fully and independently—whatever that looks like for them. This trip meant more than just a weekend of fun for ten of us as the sun shone brightly for the first time in a dreary month. It meant people had the chance to try their first s’more after seventy years. It meant several seniors got their first chance to go camping. It meant people of all ages and all disabilities felt welcomed and included at all times. It meant people made new friends and new memories in a place we all share together. I feel blessed that all those who joined us felt comfortable and trusting in SAIL’s program to take the chance on this unique Alaskan Adventure.

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