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Sailing with Youth from Challenging Life Situations
Canadian youth with disabilities enjoy an ocean voyage as they learn to sail and handle a schooner in the Gulf Islands.

From March 26 to April 1, 2010, a crew of young people set sail on the Sail and Life Training Society’s (SALTS) 138’ schooner Pacific Grace in the Gulf Islands. These were young people normally described as being “at risk” or having significant cognitive and physical disabilities. “These amazing kids handled more than 7000 square feet of sail and climbed rigging 100 feet in the air—a feat many healthy adults would be afraid to attempt," said Loren Hagerty, executive director for SALTS.

The voyage was organized in partnership between Power To Be Adventure Therapy – a Victoria, British Columbia charity that provides programs to improve lives through outdoor recreation – and SALTS, a charity that provides sail training aboard tall ships. SALTS funded the trip through its bursary program. Power To Be selected participants and provided adult leaders to assist the SALTS crew. It was the first time Power To Be combined two program participants on one expedition and the result was “magical,” according to the directors of Power To Be and SALTS, with great interaction and understanding ensuing between Power To Be volunteers and SALTS staff.

Jason Cole, director of programs for Power To Be says. “One of the most impactful elements of this adventure was the relations that where built among the youth and staff alike.

"No matter what your ability, your age or where you come from, it did not matter once you stepped onto the Pacific Grace. The experience and atmosphere on the ship, and its crew created a strong sense of community, equality and collective strength. Support for one another was almost immediate and infectious. A highlight for me was seeing youth in our leadership development program who stepped up on their own initiative engaged, and supporting others on the ship that had developmental or mobility challenges."

Participants included those living with a variety of barriers such as autism spectrum disorder, cognitive challenges, physical disabilities, and as well as six youth from the Power To Be Wilderness School, a four-year leadership development program that helps “at risk youth” find their way.

“We talk a lot about our programs providing a life-changing experience for young people, but this experience was life-changing for me,” says Hagerty. He claims his knowledge of autism before the trip was limited the movie Rain Man. Now he says, “I learned that the ‘disabled’ are also ‘abled’—they can do things that you and I cannot.” He explains that many children with autism are excellent swimmers. Others are good at math or problem solving. “Some kids with disabilities are withdrawn while others are very outgoing and full of joy about life. I was reminded to enjoy every moment of life by kids who think little of the past or future.”

Being on board demanded collaboration, says Cole. "The crew inspired and motivated our youth to work hard and have fun doing it, which all translated into many beautiful moments on the water and new perspectives to reflect on back at home.”

According to Hagerty, if there was an award for the most enthusiastic young person ever to participate in the SALTS program, that award might well have been given on this trip. He tells the story of a 14-year-old boy with a developmental disability who was asking questions of the Captain every few minutes even during the safety orientation before the ship left the dock.

“He was very excited and wanted to know everything about the ship, and was eager to take the wheel. He wanted to steer the ship all day, each day at sea, but had to be coaxed to let others have a turn too!” The ship’s Captain stood next to him and gave him step-by-step instructions to steer the 175-ton ship. “It’s typical SALTS practice to have a young person at the helm with the professional crew giving direction, for a hands-on learning experience,” says Hagerty. “This particular young person brought great joy to the entire ship’s company because he responded so enthusiastically to the program and seemed right at home at the wheel.”

For more information on SALTS, see the SALTS website, or visit the SALTS page on Facebook. E-mail: Tel: (250) 383-6811.

For more information on Power To Be Adventure Therapy, see the Power To Be website, E-mail: Tel: (250) 385-2363.

Originally published on the SALTS website, Monday, April 12, 2010.

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