A photo of an adaptive skier in the background.

Edition 22 | Spring 2021

Building community through recreation

by Whitney Thompson, Senior Marketing Manager, National Ability Center

2020 was the year of unknowns.

For the National Ability Center, that’s exactly how we felt about navigating the full impact of COVID-19 on our organization. After all, we thrive on providing in-person recreation and educational programs for people of all abilities with programs throughout Utah. Our mission is to offer year-round adaptive recreation, which includes inclusive activities like Nordic and Alpine skiing, climbing, cycling and rafting. We’re all about connection, experiences, and increasing quality of life for individuals and families–making social distancing a massive challenge for us to work through. But what do you do when the very people you serve are considered “high-risk,” and in-person programs are no longer an option?

We had no choice but to pivot.

As we re-evaluated how we would move forward, we quickly realized that our mission was much broader than just recreation. It was about serving a community and building a support system, in-person or virtual.

Serving the health care community

In this spring’s temporary absence of in-person training programs, the National Ability Center’s 52-bed lodge facility remained open. It was a resource we had available to give, and an opportunity for us to support our community. So, we opened it to Park City’s Intermountain Healthcare Hospital medical personnel. The lodge gave them a place of respite and peace as they battled the pandemic.

The lesson: Find ways to utilize the resources you already have to impact your local community, especially in times of crisis. 

Building connection through virtual programming

The NAC originally started 35 years ago to serve veterans, and that focus remains today, as it is one of the highest populations we serve annually. We see many veterans and others who have PTSD. Through these experiences, we understand the threat isolation and inactivity can be to mental health. For us, fighting the loneliness of social distancing was critical.

We launched virtual programs designed to keep our participants connected with their instructors and the community they had built through the National Ability Center. We also created groups for adaptive online workouts, crafted how-to’s, and more so the community could stay motivated and active as a unified team.

The results were tremendous. We had a veteran who rode his recumbent cycle hundreds of miles in his living room, thanks to our virtual cycling group’s motivation.

We also built connections outside of those we serve. We leveraged relationships with other adaptive programs and started a nationwide group of adaptive recreation leaders. To this day, we continue to discuss best practices for programs across the country with advocates in the industry.

A photo of a double arm amputee skiing.

The lesson: Utilize technology and other mediums to build community tethers when you can’t meet in person. This will create not only alignment between individuals but also brand association.

Supporting socially-distant outdoor activity

Summer is typically one of our busiest times for adaptive cycling. Yet adaptive cycles can cost several thousand dollars, making the equipment and the activity inaccessible to many. To help encourage outdoor activity, we launched a touch-free, long-term bike rental program. Adaptive bikes and mountain bikes were delivered to those who needed them for weeks at a time at no charge.

As our county has begun to open up, we have implemented strict protocols for in-person programming. We are transparent in our approach, so each of our community members can decide between returning to in-person NAC activities as they feel comfortable. We will also continue to offer online programs for those who do not feel comfortable meeting in-person at this time.

The lesson: Offer a variety of options for participants to experience the work you do. Combine virtual with in-person (as you’re able) learning experiences.

Beginning to look ahead

We have had to pivot significantly in the face of the pandemic and subsequent lockdown. As we move forward, we are looking to redefine our role for those we serve.

As schools began to reopen and another large population of our participants, children, faced challenges with finding appropriate recreation opportunities, we looked to provide a solution to the need for socialization and physical education. We created a program called “Fun + Fitness” as an alternative to physical education classes for homeschooling or distance-learning kids. In small group sessions, children can get active and stay social in limited enrollment, distanced classes. This past summer, we began to incorporate seasonally-appropriate activities like adaptive Nordic skiing, indoor climbing, and fat biking programs to reap the benefits of our outdoor programming while prioritizing safe recreation.

Further ahead, we aim to focus on out-of-the-box ideas that positively influence adaptive recreation around the country. Utilizing technology, we will build out training and education programs designed to facilitate adaptive recreation programs and create new opportunities for persons with and without disabilities.

If there’s one takeaway from all of this, it’s that we must keep moving. It’s vital for us to continue our work as a nonprofit — to fulfill our mission and build connections during an uncertain time. not a matter of what we’re doing as a nonprofit, but our work to CONTINUE doing it, fulfilling our mission, and building connections during an uncertain time.

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Whitney Thompson | Senior Marketing Manager, National Ability Center

Whitney Thompson is the Senior Marketing Manager at the National Ability Center and has served on the marketing team for eight years. Growing up in Utah, outdoor recreation has played a major role in Whitney’s life — from Telemark skiing and mountain biking to Nordic skiing and camping, she cherishes time spent outside with friends and family and works to welcome people of all backgrounds and abilities into their own outdoor journey. To learn more about National Ability Center’s adaptive programs visit discovernac.org.