Story by Keerthi Vedantam
Photos by Loren Worthington
It’s the time of day when the sun slowly retreats, kissing the Sedona red rock formations without lighting the sky on fire just yet. Brenna Bean eyes the uneven terrain ahead.
Nature isn’t always forgiving and not many paths on this hike are suitable for wheelchair users. The dirt trail is scattered with large rocks and patches of grass difficult to maneuver around. But Bean isn’t afraid to fall, so she pushes forward delicately, balancing her manual wheelchair on the stones ahead.
Bean isn’t one to turn away from a rocky road. Ever since she could walk through the fields of her father’s farm, Bean played every sport in the book. Her small high school in Whately, Mass. knew her as a star pole vaulter and hurdler. She was going to pole vault in college.
“It’s the kind of town here the football team makes the front page of the newspaper,” Bean said. “I was famous in a small town.”
Bean was just doing what small town kids did when her life came to a screeching halt. Two days before college, a midnight booze cruise coupled with reckless driving sent her careening out of her boyfriend’s rickety truck and into a cornfield when the car behind them clipped their bumper.
Bean and her boyfriend were heading home. Her house was within view.
The next chapter
Next on her Sedona excursion: A steep decline toward the pond, interrupted by knotted roots peeking from the ground. The group following her—some in manual wheelchairs, others in powerchairs—look apprehensive. It would be a tumultuous journey down, but she doesn’t want them to miss out on the reward below: sweet, earthy air; sunlight dancing on the freshwater’s surface.
“Okay guys,” she announced. “If you’re not sure about this, please ask our volunteers for help.” She waves at the group of volunteers armed with safari wheelchairs that resemble rickshaws equipped with tougher wheels for the terrain.
“It’s really beautiful down there,” she insisted.
This is her job at Daring Adventures, the outdoor recreation organization that provides adaptable recreation opportunities for people with disabilities. As the adaptive recreation program coordinator, she strives to make all trails, hills and parks accessible to people with disabilities.
“We really bring people to do things that they’ve never done before, or they never thought was possible,” Bean said. “Or allow people to do things that without support they wouldn’t be able to do.”
Some go flying down the slope (“Be careful!” Bean warns), while others, with the help of volunteers, move forward cautiously or transfer into safari wheelchairs.
Bean balances on her back wheels and steadily makes her way down. Nine years ago, she could have walked down the steep hill. Eight years ago, she was still trying to maneuver on smooth land with her wheels.
After her crash, the doctors spun a dizzying web of diagnoses that included a brain injury, a crushed ribcage and a T4 spinal cord injury. What should have been her first day in a college dorm bed was her third day in the intensive care unit.
As they chipped away at each injury, Bean saw a rotating cast of visitors, flowers and cards. Her parents rarely left her side. When her friend visited the hospital, Bean told her mother in a drug-induced haze, “Me and Haley are just going to go to the cafeteria.”
“No you’re not. Oh, you can’t do that,” her mom told her.
“No worries, I’m going to go,” Bean responded.
“You can’t,” her mom insisted.
Bean didn’t realize she could not walk, that her spinal cord injury paralyzed her chest-down.
In rehab, she showed her parents a new trick she learned with her wheelchair. They applauded and she blushed. It was like scoring her first soccer goal all over again.
“I wanted to prove that I could do everything,” Bean said. “Looking back—I’m kind of reflecting on it a little bit more deeply—probably was showing myself that I could do it.”
Soon enough, Bean was going on rock climbing adventures and attending college for exercise science. She wanted to be a physical therapist before her accident. Now, she wanted to work with people with disabilities.
“Hang out with my friends and go out and do things and just be like a normal person. That made my life so good despite my disability,” Bean said. “I realized I wanted to give that to other people. I wanted people to be able to do the things that they loved.”
Her daring adventure
“I’d love to, but I can’t do that.”
It’s a familiar sentiment Jerry Ketelhut hears as the executive director of Daring Adventures. This time, it came from a hesitant teenager before an 11-day whitewater rafting trip down the Grand Canyon.
“We empower them,” Ketelhut said. “With these activities, we like to work with each person individually to reach their own Everest.”
“Daring” and “adventurous” might as well be Bean’s middle names. The girl who once flew an adaptive plane never saw a boundary she couldn’t cross. Somewhere between classes and going home every weekend, she decided to embark on a new daring adventure.
“I was getting restless in my little town,” Bean confessed. “My biggest fear in life is that there’s not going to be enough time to do everything that I want to do.”
Word of an adaptive fitness gym in Arizona brought her to Arizona State University where she was honored as the school’s outstanding graduate and joined Ability360 and Daring Adventures in 2016.
“She can relate to a lot of them. She’s experiencing it,” Ketelhut said. “Brenna is really able to communicate and explain to the individuals exactly what we do and make them feel comfortable so they can have an enjoyable journey.”
Through Daring Adventures, Bean has trekked through canyons, swam in vortexes and paddled across lakes, taking handfuls of people with her who may have been scared to fall, but powered through anyway. That is Bean’s goal.
“You don’t just make adaptations so that you can live a ‘typical’ life,” Bean said. “Your life can be everything that you want it to be.”
“I’m not afraid to fall trying to do something awesome.”
Keerthi Vedantam is a Silicon Valley native studying journalism and graphic design at Arizona State University. She’s always on the lookout for good stories and innovative ways to tell them. Outside of Ability360, she produces podcasts and takes pictures. Keerthi lives on a steady diet of hot sauce and podcasts, and she wouldn’t want it any other way.