“There’s always a way.” Adaptable Outdoors is carving the trail to recreation adventures for people with disabilities

Adaptable Outdoors, a Pincher Creek-based charity, uses adaptive equipment and volunteer help to provide hiking, paddling and fishing adventures to people with disabilities. A Communities ChooseWell participant, Adaptable received a Healthy Community Grant to fund a summer program coordinator, helping the non-profit deliver outdoor experiences to more people. “When people succeed or try something new — whether that be reaching a destination or goal — it builds confidence and helps them try more things; and not be afraid to fail,” says Steve, Adaptable’s executive director. “It can be life-changing.” 

By Anna Schmidt, 2023

“Fun, fun, fun!” The chant sings out across the water. Droplets fly as the man splashes his paddle enthusiastically. The man has autism, and has been afraid of the water for years, his caregivers explain in awe. Today, he discovered a love of kayaking.

Steve Holly has countless stories just like this one. He is the executive director and co-founder of Adaptable Outdoors, a charity that creates opportunities for people living with disabilities to experience outdoor recreation — and the associated physical, social and mental health benefits. The organization, based in the town of Pincher Creek in Alberta’s southwestern foothills, joined Communities ChooseWell in 2021.

Adaptable provides volunteer support and specialized equipment to get participants of all ages hiking, paddling and fishing. They have an all-terrain wheelchair, pedal-driven kayaks and canoes with specialized seating — plus an electric fishing rod with a variety of switches that can pull in a fish at the push of a button, stomp of the foot, flick of the head or even sip of a straw.

The COVID-19 disability survey identified recreation and leisure programs as one of the greatest unmet needs for Canadians living with a disability,” says Steve. “People with disabilities face varied and also unique barriers to participating in outdoor recreation.”

Those include physical mobility barriers, mental barriers and financial barriers, he adds, explaining that people with disabilities are disproportionately represented under the national poverty line. “At Adaptable, we try to overcome the mental barriers by showing our clients and their families what’s possible with the right equipment and right support… And we offer our programs at low or no cost.”

To support this work, Steve applied for and received a $4,800 Healthy Community Grant from Communities ChooseWell to help create a new position at the non-profit — a summer program coordinator. Adaptable hired a local university student who marketed programs, set up a registration site, communicated with clients, coordinated volunteers and helped provide direct delivery.

“The position was crucial to us providing programming in 2021…We were able to deliver many more experiences than we ever expected,” says Steve. Adaptable delivered 65 outdoor adventures to 32 different clients living with disabilities, and 51 experiences to 35 family members or caregivers.

“When people succeed — whether that be reaching a destination or goal — it builds confidence and helps them try more things; and not be as afraid to fail,” says Steve. “It can be life-changing. We realize that there’s always a way.”

Steve reads the stories he’s received from Adaptable clients:

“I feel like I’ve come alive again…I’m 81 years old and learned to pedal a kayak. I went on a hike in the trailrider and loved it. I hadn’t been on a hike since 2003.”

“Adatable Outdoors has changed my idea of what my daughter is capable of…My daughter learned something new, got some exercise, but most of all, was included.”

“Adaptable changed the way I feel about my life and the direction I want to take it. [These adventures] have brought a great deal of meaning to my life, and I’m proud to be a part of it. As long as Adaptable is out there, accessible adventure awaits.”

Since hiring their first summer program coordinator in 2021, Adaptable has grown each year, hiring two seasonal coordinators in 2022 and securing funding for a full-time position in 2023. This year, Steve is looking forward to expanding their kayak fishing and paddling programs which use a locally-made, specialized canoe.

“We’re very grateful ChooseWell supports grassroots organizations, because it can be incredibly hard to find support as a new organization,” he says. “We’ve been able to grow considerably. Without our funders to get our programs off the ground, none of that would have been possible.”