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On May 25, 2001, Erik Weihenmayer became the first blind person to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. Now, he shares his inspirational journey to audiences across the world as a motivational speaker and is the founder of the No Barriers movement for people facing challenges.
Last fall, I spoke to 1,500 students in the Hickman Mills school district with Cerner’s First Hand Foundation. First Hand and the nonprofit I founded, No Barriers, have similar missions: to provide youth with a healthy future and reach their potential. Empowering children and young adults to live a healthier life is key. First Hand does this through various programs aimed at improving the health of communities and individuals. While No Barriers Youth programming arranges trips around the world with groups of kids with diverse challenges and who often come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
I have witnessed the power of these expeditions that provide critical resources and mentorship. To give kids opportunity and challenge and not be counted out, like I was at 14 when I went blind.
This excerpt from my book, No Barriers describes a trip I led that shaped much of my thinking on the importance of teaching kids the concept of a “No Barriers Life.”
We met up in Flagstaff, Arizona. There was a blind girl from Kansas, the valedictorian of her class; a kid who’d gone blind at six-years old from ocular cancer yet had wrestled and been elected to the student council; another who was on course to compete in the Paralympics. On the other side of the spectrum, there were several who had hardly been off the pavement, let alone hiking canyons or rafting whitewater. The parents of a kid named Chase had been petrified he’d fall off a cliff or drown in the river. It took major persuasion from his blindness counselor who sat down with his folks for an hour convincing them their child would not perish; that this might be good for him.
The first morning we spent packing the rafts and going over safety training.
… The teens lined up three on each side of the rafts, air paddling with the guide calling from the back and steering. “Left paddle!” I heard paddles clapping together, even on the right side. “Left back,” meant for the left side to paddle backwards while the right paddled forward. There was more clanging.”
“All paddle forward,” and the loudest crashes of all.
“Let’s have the blind kids sit up in front. “ I suggested. “You’ll get the brunt of the waves, and it will be pressure to get commands right, and the sighted kids can watch and paddle on your rhythm.”
“Right paddle,” the guide yelled. “Left paddle,” and the banging began to subside…
As we paddled through flat sections, Marieke described the thick silty color of the river, the clouds, and the canyon walls with different colors, reds, browns, and blacks, like layers of a birthday cake. We pulled the raft over so we could run our fingers across this smooth sandstone. She’d also describe our entertaining safety kayak guide, Harlan.
On a sandy beach we shared our lunch as the kids sat in an impromptu circle in the sand. They went around sharing their backgrounds. Chase had begun the trip in silence, but he had warmed to the group, his words coming out rapid-fire like an old engine sputtering to life. “I’m really into computers,” he said. “I’m on mine for hours pretty much every day.”
He told us his parents worked long hours. He rode home from school on a special bus for handicapped kids. Then, he hung out alone in his room, doing homework, listening to music, and programming on the computer. “I love the computer. I learned Basic last year. This year I’m learning Java… But it does get kind of lonely sometimes. I’m not really allowed to go outside. I can’t even go down my driveway to get the mail in the mailbox. My parents say I’ll get lost, or I could get hit by a car. I’m honestly surprised I’m even here.”
We stopped at Red Wall Cavern, a huge beach the size of a couple football fields, all covered by a massive rock overhang. Many of the kids had never sprinted before. So we set up blind races and told the kids there was nothing to trip over but sand dunes. I challenged Chase to a race. I showed him how to start in runner’s position, crouched down and one hand touching the sand. He bounded out of the gate like a newborn foal. As I ran beside him, I envisioned his gangly arms and legs churning. He kept falling to his hands and knees, each time leaping up again and flailing forward. I beat him by a few feet and was at the finish line to tackle him. We looked like sand monsters, covered from head to toe with gritty Colorado River clay. The rest of the day, he kept poking me excitedly in the shoulder to say, “I’m going to beat you next time.”
The team had graduated to blind and sighted duos paddling on tandem Duckies through the small rapids, then to blind kids paddling solo and following our guide, and finally to two blind teens paddling together.
On the last night, we circled up again reviewing the experience. For one of the sighted kids, his highlight was learning to guide his blind partner down the trail. For others it was the thrill of the big rapids. For Chase, it was sprinting through Red Stone Cavern. “What did that feel like?” a kid asked.
“Well, it felt kind of like I was a bird let out of a cage,” he replied. “I love running full throttle. I’d never done it before. I have to admit, I don’t like falling down, which I do a lot.”
“I know it sounds stupid, but I think I’ve figured something out… I want to run more, but I think I’m going to fall a lot. Falling sucks, but that’s just part of it. I’ve got to get up and keep running. I guess what I mean is, that you can’t run if you’re not willing to fall.”
I sat back speechless. I wasn’t sure if Chase’s revelation was foolish, or one of the wisest Forrest Gump speeches I’d ever heard. I tended to think the latter.