Dunes Learning Center and the Importance of Accessible Outdoor Experiences

Karin Willison presents the 2016 Green Apple Award to teacher and autism advocate to Tracy Chandler

Karin Willison presents the 2016 Green Apple Award to teacher and autism advocate to Tracy Chandler

By Karin Willison, from her travel blog, Free Wheelin'

On September 16, 2016, I was honored to be invited by Dunes Learning Center to present their annual Green Apple Award to an outstanding educator and autism advocate, Tracy Chandler. At the banquet, I spoke briefly about how important spending time in nature has been for me as a person with a disability. My experiences during the weekend further affirmed that for me.

I first connected with Dunes Learning Center and the National Park Service back in March when I got an email through my employer, The Mighty, about the Canoemobile. It’s a program through Wilderness Inquiry that gives people with and without disabilities the opportunity to go canoeing at various national parks, including Lake George and Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. When they asked if I’d like to participate, I said absolutely!

The Canoemobile program is wonderfully inclusive. They were willing and able to lift me in and out of the canoe, and were very sensitive to my needs. They had everything I needed to be safe and secure in the canoe, with seating and balance support and even an adapted oar so I could help row. I was anxious and stiff with spasticity when we left the dock, but as we got out into the water, the gentle rocking of the boat soothed my nerves. As we paddled slowly across the lake, memories flowed from the lost reaches of my mind, of days fishing in a canoe and hiking through the woods with my parents. I was filled with a sense of peace and gratitude.

Karin paddling a canoe on Lake George. May 5, 2016

Karin paddling a canoe on Lake George. May 5, 2016

My Canoemobile experience reminded me of how much I love being out in nature, and how little of it I’ve experienced in recent years. I used the power of travel to reclaim my autonomy and self-esteem after surviving abuse and a violent crime, but my destinations have been mostly urban. After being isolated, I craved reconnection with people and culture; the vitality of cities, the joy of a live theatre performance, the hug of a close friend. But now, with my life heading back on track but also very stressful at times, I found I was missing something else. I wanted to spend time in a place where the din of schedules and appointments and paperwork would fade away and I could just be. I needed peace, quiet, and healing. And I found it at Dunes Learning Center.

My friend / travel assistant Eliza and I were able to stay at a cabin in the woods that is usually used by students participating in the programs at Dunes Learning Center. I was told that the cabin was wheelchair accessible, and was thrilled to find that indeed it was! I had plenty of space in both the toilet and shower rooms, and the sleeping area had comfortable bunkbeds. The cabins also had heating and air conditioning, perhaps a no-no for camping purists, but essential for me as a person with sensitivity to heat.

Our wonderful host, Geof Benson, executive director of Dunes Learning Center, showed us the cabin and then we walked along a woodsy trail to a fire pit. It was a dirt trail, but fairly easy to navigate even with my off-balance power wheelchair. It was the first time in many years that I have gone so deep into the woods. Even though I got eaten alive by mosquitoes, I loved it.

Near the cabins at Dunes Learning Center.

Near the cabins at Dunes Learning Center.

The award ceremony was held at a lovely country club, with a silent auction, tasty hors d’oeuvres and an excellent live jazz band. Everyone was very friendly, and I was impressed by the dedication of the community to inclusion for people with disabilities. Tracy Chandler, the award recipient, is a kind and humble woman with a deep commitment to her students. We talked a bit before and after the ceremony, and she shared a few of her experiences working with students on the full range of the autism spectrum. She reminded me of two wonderful science teachers I had when I was growing up, who went the extra mile to ensure I had the same opportunities as other children to learn about and love science and nature. Teachers like her are priceless, and deserve every award and opportunity we can give them.

I’m so excited to have returned to public speaking. It was an enormous part of my life when I was younger — I regularly spoke to groups of dozens, even hundreds of people about disabilities and service dogs. I always loved it, and I am enjoying it even more now. I feel slightly more nervous than I used to, but perhaps that’s because now I understand more fully the importance of what I’m doing. Every person without a disability I can reach with my words is someone else who will give an opportunity, a fair chance to the next person with a disability who comes their way. Every person with a disability who hears my story is someone who might realize they can free themselves from believing society’s negative judgments and learn to take pride in who they are. I have fought my way back to being able to do what I love most, and I’m more dedicated than ever to sharing my story and hopefully inspiring people.

That night, after enjoying a wonderful banquet and presenting the award, I returned to the cabin for the most peaceful night of sleep I’ve had in months. I felt so safe there, surrounded by trees and the occasional deer wandering through or bunny hopping by. I woke up earlier and feeling far more refreshed than I ever do at home. I went to Chicago for some urban adventures, but returned to the cabin for a second tranquil night.

On Sunday, I attended the Apples, Apples Apples festival in a different area of the park, the Chellberg Farm. Again, I was impressed with the wheelchair accessibility. There was a gorgeous, woodsy trail between the parking lot and the homestead; I found it easy to navigate the dirt path, and I had a great view of the valley and dry creek below. In the clearing at the end of the path, park rangers demonstrated an apple cider press and stirred apple butter over a fire as traditional guitar and banjo tunes floated through the warm afternoon air. Nearby, the Chellberg house had ramps, and it was fairly easy to get around inside. They had beautiful quilts on display, and an apple-clove air freshener making workshop. The tantalizing smell of apple-cinnamon doughnuts wafted from an 1897 oven. I loved the tasty treats and mellow live music; it was the perfect ending to a wonderful weekend.

Along a trail through the woods at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Along a trail through the woods at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

I’m home now, but when the world gets to be too much, I will close my eyes and imagine myself back in that cabin or exploring those peaceful trails. I understand now more than ever how important it is for me, and all people with disabilities, to have access to the outdoors. People tend to think of the wild world, the raw earth, as harsh and unforgiving towards anything our culture perceives as weak, including disability. If they imagine people with disabilities exploring the outdoors at all, they may think of elite athletes, climbing mountains with high-tech prosthetics or going off-road in wheelchairs with tank treads. But nature is for all of us. Nature can be made accessible without destroying it; we don’t need to pave the world to make a safe path for everyday people with disabilities like me. I may not go whitewater rafting, but I can drift across a lake in a canoe, finding peace as I watch the ducks swim by. I may not climb mountains, but I can find solace along a little dirt path in the woods. I am a person seeking emotional and spiritual healing through nature as so many do, and making these spaces accessible benefits all of us.

I am grateful to the National Park Service for caring about accessibility long before the ADA, and for creating the Golden Access Pass so I can visit our beautiful parks free of charge. Thank you to Geof Benson, Sandi Weindling, Tracy Chandler, and other environmental educators I’ve yet to meet for your hard work. Thank you for recognizing that I matter. Thank you for supporting the children with and without disabilities who find joy in nature through Dunes Learning Center, Canoemobile, and other programs around the country. I hope to work with you again soon!