“Nature fits all of her children with something to do.”
The words of James Russell Lowell lingered on the screen for just a few moments before they were replaced by images of nature and smiling individuals embracing the great outdoors. As the video continued, the audience heard stories from different participants in Outdoor Explorations (OE).
On Wednesday, OE celebrated its 15th anniversary at its fourth annual fundraising event, The Great Campout. The event included both a silent and live auction, the premiere of the video, Outdoor Explorations: 15 Years of Leadership, and an address from keynote speaker Jennifer Fitz-Roy, LSOE ’07.
According to its mission statement, “OE makes the outdoors a welcoming place to people with disabilities. Through our innovative, cooperative, and fun approach, we break down the barriers that prevent people from living life to the fullest. Our adventure programs, trainings, and community service days enable people of all abilities to discover and value their own and others’ unique strengths.”
Fitz-Roy, a human development major who plans to pursue a master’s degree in clinical social work at Boston College, was asked to serve as the keynote speaker after appearing in the OE video.
Fitz-Roy was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair. According to the Spina Bifida Association, this birth defect affects an estimated 70,000 Americans.
Beth Shapiro, executive director of OE, described Fitz-Roy’s enthusiasm in a press release for The Great Campout: “[Fitz-Roy] really embodies the spirit of breaking down barriers to adventure, not only out on the rapids, but across campus and everywhere in between.”
At BC, Fitz-Roy has participated in activities such as the Emerging Leaders Program and University Chorale. She has also chaired an organization at BC that put on different disability awareness events for children and families. In addition, she recently returned from studying abroad in Germany.
Outside of BC, Fitz-Roy has worked on disability policy on the national and international level, participating in organizations such as the National Council on Disability and the National Youth Advisory Council, which both work under the president in Washington, D.C.
Fitz-Roy first became involved in OE four years ago when she spoke to a representative for the non-profit organization at an abilities exposition. She said that she liked the inclusive nature of the organization – the trips are accessible to everyone and include family-oriented events.
“You have people with all different disabilities all working together to achieve a common goal. It brings out a lot of strengths in people like leadership and courage, which might not be brought out in other settings,” said Fitz-Roy.
On her first trip with OE, Fitz-Roy went whitewater rafting. Since then she has taken part in a variety of different activities OE offers including hiking, kayaking, sailing, camping, and snowshoeing. She said that the ropes courses and water activities are among her favorite activities.
“It shows people that they have all of these opportunities. I think it’s a huge factor in developing a positive attitude. Therapeutic recreation also helps reduce pain,” said Fitz-Roy.
OE volunteers share Fitz-Roy’s enthusiasm for the program. Volunteers undergo training that consists of two different programs, one for new volunteers and one for returning volunteers. The purpose of the program is to promote disability awareness and build a community.
Volunteers Deb and Eric Whitney became involved in OE after stumbling across the Web site while looking for outdoor activities. “We went on a snowshoe trip as participants. It was completely new to me, it was a real equalizer – the other participants probably knew 10 times more than me what they were doing,” said Eric Whitney.
The Whitneys have been volunteering for two years and served on the Campout Committee, running the live auction at the gala.
Stephen Murray also came across OE while looking for a way to pursue his interest in the outdoors.
“I like the outdoors but tend to not have the avenues to pursue them. I also work with children with special needs so I thought that this would be a good opportunity to gain the knowledge to possibly help them.”
One of the most memorable moments for Murray as an OE volunteer was watching a group of students with sight difficulties go up a climbing wall. “It’s amazing to see them with such confidence and to see them go outside their area of comfort. It’s fun to see them achieving anything they put their minds to.”
Tom Hamel, meanwhile, came across OE while looking for a job. “I wear a hearing aid and love the outdoors, so I thought that this would be a perfect combination. There weren’t any job opportunities at the time, but they said that were always looking for volunteers,” said Hamel, who has volunteered for five years and now serves on the board of trustees.
During its first 15 years, OE has provided adventure trips for over 11,000 people, trained over 800 volunteers, and partnered with over 500 organizations, schools, and corporations. OE also provides financial assistance for 70 percent of its participants.
Fundraisers such as The Great Campout and donations from individuals and corporations provide 80 percent of the funding for the organization.
“If you could remember just one thing from tonight, it should be our theme: leadership. OE has been a leader in making the outdoors open and accessible … [Participants] become leaders in their own lives, becoming actors and not just spectators, as well as leaders in their communities working as advocates,” said Shapiro, executive director of OE, in her welcoming remarks.
Shapiro also urged her audience to share its enthusiasm for OE with those around them. “We are launching our 15th anniversary campaign to build support for our work.
“Take your excitement and inspiration from OE and spread it around to everyone you know so that one day everyone with disabilities will have access to the outdoors,” she said.
Bonnie and Jim Waldron shared Shapiro’s desire to spread OE. The Waldrons established the Mary Kaye Waldron fund in memory of their daughter, a BC alumnae.
“When we established the fund we were looking for an organization to support. That’s when we found out about OE. We are very happy to support Jennifer; she has really availed herself. We’re trying to get a partnership set up that would be open to everyone so that we could get some BC students to get involved,” said Bonnie Waldron.
During her speech, Fitz-Roy spoke further of the challenges she has faced as well as the positive experience she has had with OE. Like many of the other volunteers and participants who shared their personal stories during the night, Fitz-Roy described how OE had helped change her perceptions of herself and those around her.
“OE has had a profound effect on how I see myself. It has changed my perception to what I can do versus what I cannot do. Every person has something to offer,” she said. “We are limited by barriers, not by our condition. OE breaks down those barriers.”
The strong sense of community and teamwork expressed throughout the evening was further emphasized when Fitz-Roy’s quoted Helen Keller:
“Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.”