The Great Outdoors

In June 2006, Sarah Williams Volf, director of recreational, educational and cultural programs for Challenge Aspen in Snowmass Village, Colo., had just finished a presentation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center when Sgt. Brian Fountaine asked to see her. He wanted to attend the trip she had offered — a 10-day adventure through the Grand Canyon beginning on Aug. 23. Volf looked to his bandaged legs, which he had lost below the knees only 12 days before in Iraq, and saw little hope.

If Fountaine could heal in that short period of time, she promised, he would have a place in the group. But there would be plenty of other opportunities, Volf reminded him.

He made it on the trip, even though his residual limbs were still too swollen for prostheses.

“He [completed] the 10 days and he was absolutely incredible. He drove the boat part way down the Grand Canyon,” Volf said.

About the program

Injured veteran at outdoor adventure camp
All images reprinted with permission of Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics Inc.

Challenge Aspen is a year-round adaptive program providing recreational, cultural and competitive experiences for people with more than 150 different physical or cognitive disabilities. Each year Challenge Aspen hosts approximately 1,000 individual participants, ranging in age from 4 years old to 96 years old.

According to Volf, the organization sees about an 85% return rate from participants. With a variety of summer and winter programs, the camp offers people several options for themselves and for their families.

“It almost becomes an annual vacation for that family, because they can have that true family experience with Challenge Aspen,” she said.

A native of Wales, Volf oversees the development of new programs and the management of activities, staff, instructors and volunteers. She also ensures the Challenge Aspen team is prepared to support participants and their individual needs.

The organization was founded in 1995 as a winter program, and it remains strong in its snow-based sports. Challenge Aspen offers an individual ski and snowboard program with one-on-one specialized instruction for anyone with a disability, such as a child with autism, someone with visual impairment or an amputee. Family members are encouraged to join, but also can take lessons from nearby Aspen Skiing Company ski school.

In addition, people with disabilities can take part in other specialized camps. Throughout the 2007-2008 season, Challenge Aspen held 10 different week-long camps, ranging from annual mono ski camps for beginners and advanced skiers, to groups like the Tennessee School for the Blind, the Shepherd Center in Atlanta and several veterans groups.

Veterans camps

Sgt. Orlando Gill rock climbs during Challenge Aspen’s Wilderness Experience for Veterans
Sgt. Orlando Gill rock climbs during Challenge Aspen’s Wilderness Experience for Veterans.

Thanks to a grant, Challenge Aspen was able to hold its first program specifically for newly injured soldiers in February 2005. Because of the success of that camp, in the summer of 2005 the organization developed the Aspen Wilderness Experience, a 10-day summer program primarily for amputees from Walter Reed and Brook Army Medical Center. The 25 young men and women in attendance participated in rock climbing, rafting and overnight camping. In 2006, Challenge Aspen led 14 newly injured soldiers, including Fountaine, over 226 miles of the Grand Canyon.

Many people attending the veterans programs have injuries below the skin, such as blast injuries, or may have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“Challenge Aspen has invested time to training its staff and volunteers about working with hidden disabilities,” Volf told O&P Business News. “Sometimes dealing with an arm or leg amputee, when you can see the injury, [is] easier than looking at those closed injuries.”

Another area of training for members of Challenge Aspen was developed when one newly injured veteran attended the Grand Canyon trip in 2006. He had suffered a traumatic brain injury, was blind in one eye and had lost hearing in one ear. Volf worked with his therapist to accommodate his specific needs and, in the end, he excelled on the trip. Volf wanted to offer this type of therapy to similar patients with traumatic brain injuries and polytrauma.

She consulted with that therapist over the following months and, in September 2007, Challenge Aspen held the first program in the world for soldiers with traumatic brain injury, including 16 participants. Then in January of this year, Volf invited seven traumatic brain injury patients to the new Winter Extremity Camp, a combination of skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling, with a visit to the Winter X-Games.

Camp programs

Camper Heath Calhoun swings away
Camper Heath Calhoun swings away.

Challenge Aspen offers scholarships for those individuals qualifying for its camps, along with a caregiver for that person. The grants awarded to the organization for the past 3 years have allowed for total scholarships, including airfare, lodging and all program costs such as instruction, activities, meals, etc.

Challenge Aspen team liaisons book airfare, coordinate special travel requirements and ensure that participants have everything they need to complete the program. Volf sends out waivers, lists of important items to pack, medical release forms and goal sheets, which give her information about participants’ current abilities and goals for the trip.

In addition, the team retains medical professionals from the patients’ hospitals or Department of Veterans Affairs facilities who specialize in working with people with disabilities. On the Grand Canyon trip, for example, Challenge Aspen recruited a medical professional whose job was to cleanse wounds and care for participants’ residual limbs.

Along with the trained staff, instructors and volunteers, participants also may be paired with “buddies,” who provide additional one-on-one support.

Each trip begins with an orientation, a trip overview and a welcome dinner. Volf prepares an itinerary for each day, but says that schedule depends on several factors, including the weather and participant abilities.

She may change the itinerary “if somebody is fatigued, if they have altitude sickness, if they may be going through something with PTSD,” she said. “It is a flexible group and that is important to me and my staff, instructors and volunteers to remember that it may say one thing on the paper for a Tuesday morning, but this could change.”

Another tool Volf’s team uses to assess participants’ progress throughout the trip is end-of-day summaries from therapists, instructors and volunteers. They also plan a celebration banquet for the end of camp to highlight the week’s successes.

“I always say that we are a lifelong program to support you and make sure that everybody is aware of our ongoing scholarship fund to support [them],” she said.

Success of the camps

Bryan Anderson on a Grand Canyon tour
Bryan Anderson on a Grand Canyon tour.

Participants and their family members offer testimonials and survey feedback, but perhaps the most telling measure of the program’s success comes from the medical professionals who work with patients.

“The therapists have actually said that what happens here in a week is worth months and months of therapy [participants] would receive at Walter Reed or one of the facilities,” Volf said. “We see tremendous benefits.”

Actual achievements for individual participants vary; however, the nature of our program lends itself to positive experiences and open communication.

“To be river rafting for days in the outdoors without cell phones, distractions … it gives them an opportunity to connect,” she said.

With a high level of both physical and emotional support available, participants are better able to accomplish the goals they set at the start of their trip.

“We definitely have had people who have had frustrations on a daily basis, but they have all achieved so much more than we anticipated,” she said.

Some participants seem focused on their injuries, unable to move forward. In these cases, Volf consults with their therapists and reviews the goal sheets to determine the best way to motivate them.

“In that situation … I have paired them up with a strong instructor or volunteer who just got the best out of them,” she said. “Some people need that extra support to succeed, some don’t.”

Success, Volf emphasizes, can mean any level of progress that is important to the participant. There is no specific end place people need to reach; more important is the journey over those several days.

One of Challenge Aspen’s biggest success stories comes from Neil Duncan, a bilateral transtibial and transfemoral amputee. He had lost his legs in Iraq a few months before signing up for the Grand Canyon trip, and got around mostly by wheelchair. On the trip, however, he committed to using his prostheses, and surpassed everyone’s expectations. Only a couple of years later, Duncan now races for the Challenge Aspen Ski Team.

“It has been a pleasure to have had these experiences,” Duncan said. “They would not have been possible without … the Challenge Aspen organization.”

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Stephanie Z. Pavlou is a staff writer for O&P Business News.

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