The Power of Play
Story by Jennifer Longdon
Photo by Michael Eimer
Jo Crawford took a leap of faith after talking to other adapted watersports programs around the country to ensure this was doable. Two years ago the Day on the Lake program started offering tubing for those individuals with tracheostomies and certain implanted tubes so they could participate and actually be on the water with the wind in their faces.
“There’s a lot at stake with a decision like that, Crawford explains, “We are prudent but everyone should have a chance to have fun.”
The decision meant that this year for the first time ever, 15-year-old Danielle Spurbeck participated. She was carefully nestled between two trained volunteers on a giant tube pulled by a speed boat and they took off. She whooped as the tube caught air on a bright September afternoon in 2017.
“Oh yeah!” Spurbeck said. “Someday I do want to come back in the future.”
“Everyone has a right to risk,” Crawford said. “I don’t like to hear or say ‘no.’ People living with disabilities hear ‘no’ a lot.”
Jo Crawford summed up her personal mission and her hallmark event in a single Facebook post later that day.
Thank you to everyone who made Day on the Lake possible and to every participant who came out!
My favorite quote…”This is the farthest I have been from my wheelchair in 14 years!”
Tell us your favorite quote.
God is good!
Day on the Lake provides adaptive water sports for people with physical and neurological disabilities at Bartlett Lake. Participants ride jet skis, take a turn at adapted waterskiing, tubing, wakeboarding and surfing or enjoy riding in speed boats or the party boat. DOTL completed its 21st year with 233 participants and 156 volunteers for the summer series of 6 days of fun in the sun.
“There’s amazing energy every year. It’s so great to see the smiles on everyone’s faces. Their reactions make us want to come back year-after-year,” said Jeff Ramsdell, general manager of Leeden Wheelchair Lift and Sport, and one of the longest-serving DOTL volunteers. “Jo’s been the driving force behind this event. She put the program together and recruits the volunteers. She’s a ball of energy that makes it all happen.”
It sometimes seems that everyone living with neurologic disability in Phoenix Valley knows Jo Crawford. Her work to ensure play is pervasive.
“Everyone has a right to play,” Crawford says, “It’s good for the soul.”
Another of Crawford’s star events, Driving to Excel, teams up with Bondurant School of High Performance Driving to allow PWD to drive race cars or ride with a driver completed its seventh year in December.
Robert Reed, Ability360 Sports and Fitness Center Membership Outreach Specialist and a full-time wheelchair user, attended Driving to Excel for the first time in December 2017
“It was pretty cool,” Reed said. “It’s not often that people with disabilities are given the opportunity to experience something like drive a race car with hand controls.” Participants receive a safety orientation and driving tips before driving laps on a skills course. “You’re driving around traffic cones and taking corners at 60 miles per hour. That’s awesome.”
The “hot lap” is a favorite part of the event. Participants ride as a passenger with a professional race car driver and take the track at speeds upward of 120 mph.
“The first corner is a shock,” Reed said with a grin. “They remind you to breathe into the corners because of the g-force of the turn. You remember that with the second curve for sure.”
Crawford knows that DOTL and Driving to Excel are more than mere adventures. Based on her two-year study done in partnership with Western Washington University, she’s learned that year-after-year, participants are transformed.
“Sixty-five to 70 percent of our participants initiate something new in their life within a year—a new relationship, learning to drive, career or education plans—it’s amazing,” Crawford said.
Crawford is the program coordinator of the Barrow Connection Outreach and Adventure program of the Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center that works to bridge the gap between hospital and community.
The success of the program is a combination of grace and science. Crawford holds degrees as a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist and a Master’s of Science and Leadership from Grand Canyon University. Her educational focus taught her to “ignite people and build successful programs.” She says a focus on relearning how to play is crucial to recovery after disability.
“Families are broken and exhausted when they get to us.” Crawford said. “People with disabilities have limited access to play. Relearning that is transformational and creates a new level of healing.”
An Arizona native, Crawford grew up riding horses and team roping. She lives in Dewey, Ariz., a small town north of the Valley, with her husband, Keith, and sons Shane (11) and Michael David (9). Her Facebook feed is full of photos of her boys participating in sports and roping hay bales in the back yard before dinner. She enjoys hot yoga and mountain biking. Crawford commutes 90 minutes each way from Dewey to her office at Barrow two to three days a week.
“It’s not so bad. I listen to audiobooks and get to watch the sunrise,” she said. “It’s the calmness before my workday starts.”
Calmness, steadfastness and warmth all describe Crawford. She’s known for greeting people with a hug. She attributes her success to her deep Christian faith and the healing ministry that is part of the culture at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Barrow Neurological Institute, part of the Dignity Health System. In 2017, she was awarded Dignity Health’s prestigious Act of Human Kindness Steward award in recognition of her 25 years ensuring that patients succeed outside of the hospital setting.
“Jo sees possibilities where others see problems. She is a joyful spirit and lives in the space of happiness. When you meet her, be prepared to be energized and empowered,” said Marisue Garganta, Director of Community Health Integration and Community Benefit for Dignity Health. “Jo is certainly an expert in her field. She loves her work but she loves the people she serves even more.”
“Jo is instrumental to making play a possibility for people in our community. She’s so passionate and energetic. She’s great at interacting with everyone at these events and making sure people know these programs exist,” said Reed who often works with the same people at the Ability360 Sports & Fitness Center that Crawford serves. “Jo doesn’t tell you what you should do or what she thinks you need. She makes sure you have what you need if you want it. That’s unique.”
Jennifer Longdon is known to drink too much coffee, ask too many questions and then write about it. She has served on numerous Boards and Commissions focused on disability advocacy including the Phoenix Mayor’s Commission on Disability Issues, the Statewide Independent Living Council and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation Public Impact Panel. Jen has a T-4 spinal cord injury and uses a wheelchair full time.