Expanding Adapted Programs

The coordinators of the Fairfax County Park Authority’s (FCPA) Americans With Disabilities Act were seeking partners in 2013 for new, adapted programming ideas. The agency already had more than 1,000 registered customers in the Adapted Aquatics programs, and more than 100 participants were in Adapted Gymnastics. Dozens more attended adapted campfires and camps that not only brought the outdoors to people with disabilities—the programs brought people into the outdoors.

Riverbend Park in Great Falls, Va., was approached because, outside of hiking, the park’s most popular recreational activities take place on the water—fishing and boating. At the time, boating and fishing were not priorities of the agency’s adaptive programming, and this was an opportunity for program expansion, new revenue, and stewardship education among users who were traditionally excluded. 

An Accessible River

Riverbend rests on a sweeping turn of the Potomac River, with a relatively calm stretch of water along its shorelines, just upriver from the more famous Great Falls National Park with its whitewater kayaking opportunities.  For decades, Riverbend has taken advantage of its location to provide recreational water programming for children and adults. Available through the park are canoe and kayak tours, day camps, boating, fishing, and water-based Scout merit-badge programs. In 2014, Riverbend introduced new programs that made the river even more accessible to people. 

“The ultimate goal is to allow families to support their participants independently, both at Riverbend and other recreation locations,” noted a former Adapted Aquatics Program Manager at the site. “This increases the opportunities for families to recreate together, both in and outside of the park authority. “

Before any smiles could be generated, however, there were practical concerns. Ease of access was a primary problem, and the answer came through the acquisition of accessible sit-on-top kayaks. They offer an ideal solution for a stimulating yet safe river experience. Sit-on-tops are open-air and allow relatively easy entry and exit for a variety of body types. Funding for the fleet came from a pair of grants totaling $10,000, which became the impetus Riverbend needed to purchase kayaks, along with fishing rods with push-button reels—generally an easier style of reel to cast. The park then incorporated the kayaks into the adapted programs. By connecting fishing and boating, the park set the stage for dual actions—the satisfaction in accomplishing a goal and the magical moment of holding the first fish ever caught.


Test The Waters

As program planning was underway, there was a timely adapted recreation fair for individuals with disabilities being hosted by Therapeutic Recreation Services of Fairfax County. Riverbend staff members attended, and the fair provided a marketing boost that helped alleviate any concerns that outdoor, water-oriented, riverfront recreation was not accessible for the disabled community. 

Riverbend next hosted an Adapted Family Day Open House. Families were able to test the waters by fishing, kayaking, or hiking with an instructor. The formal programs began in the summer of 2014, and the park found there was interest over time. The first 4-week Adapted Kayaking program for 8- to 21 year-olds saw seven of its eight openings filled. Through that event, families joined class participants in paddling single or tandem two-person kayaks on the Potomac River under the watchful eyes of instructors who taught different strokes in addition to basic water safety. A one-and-a-half mile float trip through gentle rapids and riffles on the Potomac highlighted the outing. By the end of the class, many of the participants were able to paddle single kayaks.

Proud Parents

In the fall of 2014, Riverbend hosted its first Riverside Connections class. This class, designed for 11- to 21 year-old youth, was arranged as a 4-week introduction to outdoor recreation. It included aspects of hiking, fishing, and kayaking. The class filled. The participants hiked to see the cascades at Riverbend’s downstream neighbor, Great Falls National Park, caught and released fish, and paddled on the Potomac.

Two siblings in the course said they wished the class could meet every Saturday morning. A mother wrote the following to the park:

“Thank you for a wonderful 4 weeks. Alex really had a good time, and it helped him socially to connect with other children. I have found it very difficult to have Alex do any outdoor camps as he gets easily frustrated at not being able to keep up with the others—even at Boy Scout camp, so your adapted class really helped him to realize he can do outdoor activities and enjoy them! I do hope that you will think about running this class again—perhaps in the Spring as well as the Fall.” 

Surprisingly, the parents had the biggest impact on instructors like volunteer Tim Teehan. “I expected the reward of seeing the kids joyfully overcoming challenges and diving into unexplored environments, sometimes literally,” Teehan said. “However, it was seeing the parents share in this activity and growth with their kids. Watching a father beam with pride as he paddled beside his child during their first time in a single-person kayak. Seeing a mother's satisfaction as she and her child paddled in rhythm. Those are the rewarding experiences that never get old."

A Family Affair

Family members and volunteers helped with the program, which provided the class a reasonable guide-to-student ratio, allowed students to spend more time engaged in the activity, and brought families closer through mutual goals. 

“The adapted outdoor rec programs have been a great way for me to connect with participants and their families,” said Park Recreation Assistant Jordan Libera. “By facilitating a new or inclusive experience for them, such as kayaking or fishing, I have been able to really get to know each individual and their families.”

Each student worked with both single and tandem kayaks, so had opportunities to explore a range of skills. The kayaks used in the classes also served as rental units, so the skills learned in class could be reinforced with similar equipment on familiar waters if families decided to rent kayaks outside of class time.

An Expanding Program

Thanks to the success of the early programs, Riverbend has expanded its adapted offerings. The park currently provides an introduction to outdoor recreation activities, such as hiking, fishing, and kayaking, through several classes: a 4-week Riverside Connections class, a second 4-week class titled Adapted Kayaking, which offers safety and paddling instruction on the river, and a week-long Adapted Potomac Adventures Summer Camp, which includes fishing, hiking, tubing, and kayaking among its outdoor experiences.

These programs not only fulfill a part of the agency’s mission to provide opportunities for recreation while creating new, enriching experiences, but also support the needs of a diverse community. The ultimate goal of Adapted Kayaking is that family members support each other independently, both at Riverbend and at other outdoor sites.  And the experience has an impact on the teachers, too.

 “Seeing their enthusiasm to be outside, progression of skill development, and building confidence in new situations is why I enjoying teaching and developing our programs so much,” Libera said.

David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications and the ResOURces Editor for the Resource Management Division of the Fairfax County Park Authority in Virginia. Reach him at David.Ochs@fairfaxcounty.gov.