Ability First lifts disabled youths to new heights
Petite, tanned and feisty Jaclyn Schmidt described, with a slight emotional catch in her voice, how she was often derogatorily called “Wheelchair Girl” at the school she attended in Antioch.
Her family moved to Fair Oaks, where this fall she will be a sophomore at Bella Vista High. Jaclyn will have something special to share when anyone asks about her summer vacation.
Jaclyn, who is paralyzed from the waist down, the result of an ATV accident five years ago, just finished her second session at the Ability First Youth Sports Camp, which ran June 17-23 at Chico State. It’s a week-long residential camp for kids ages 8-17 who have physical disabilities such as spina bifida, cerebral palsy and (as in Jaclyn’s case) spinal-cord injuries—and it changes lives.
Jaclyn was visibly pleased to attend Ability First for a second summer.
The 15-year-old is fast developing a reputation on the disabled water-ski scene as a trick skier, known for her endurance and her impressive aerobatics. She also regularly attends Sacramento State’s WAVE Camp, a water-sports-based camp for youngsters and young adults with physical disabilities, and Camp WAMP, a wilderness camp in the Truckee area for physically disabled youth.
"[At Ability First] you get to try new sports,” she pointed out happily. “The first year I came, I had never played basketball, tennis or rugby before.”
There’s also a sense of belonging.
“Here, we’re campers, not kids in wheelchairs,” Jaclyn pointed out matter-of-factly, with a smile on her face. “And we go home and teach others about this camp. … I tell everybody. I show my friends pictures from camp. I think a lot of people like learning about it because it’s just interesting.”
Ability First began 22 years ago as a one-day camp. Eric Snedeker was the coordinator of Chico State’s Adaptive P.E. program at the time, and he noticed how disabled kids often sat on the sidelines when it came to P.E. and sports programs at their schools, especially in rural communities where there were likely few if any other disabled children and little understanding of how to include them in physical activity.
The camp he founded now draws young people from throughout the Western United States. This year 39 campers attended.
“I want kids to go back to their community and advocate for themselves,” said Snedeker, also known to many as the tireless, jovial and vibrant principal of Chico’s Loma Vista School, which serves students with developmental disabilities. “Once they learn the rules for adaptive sports, they won’t have to look for a disabled program. They’ll be able to go to a regular program. They become the educators of their teachers.”
Snedeker recalls a boy who learned to play adaptive tennis, where the only rule change is that a disabled player gets two bounces before returning the ball instead of one. (In this way, a disabled player can play an able-bodied player on an equal footing.)
“He went back home,” Snedeker continued, “and the next thing I know, his P.E. teacher is calling me and saying, ‘What did you tell this kid? He’s telling me he can play tennis. How’s he supposed to do that?’ I told him, ‘Just give him two bounces instead of one.’ “
Snedeker shrugged his shoulders and smiled in his good-natured way, as if to say, It’s that simple.
Kerri McMurtry exemplifies the kind of empowered disabled athlete Snedeker strives to cultivate.
One notices the dark-haired 29-year-old is articulate, sporty-looking and very pretty almost before realizing she is in a wheelchair—her presence is that striking and electric. A former Gridley High homecoming queen who wears a tiny, delicate silver nose ring in her right nostril, McMurtry is a former camper who has been a staff member for 10 years.
She has competed internationally four times as a member of the U.S. Disabled Water Ski Team and has won championships and medals in both national and international events. She recently returned from Australia, where she was on a Rotary scholarship working toward her master’s degree in kinesiology at the University of Queensland in Brisbane.
For Ability First, McMurtry is a coach and a coach coordinator. She coached track and field this summer; in past years, she’s usually coached tennis.
McMurtry was born with spina bifida, a condition in which an abnormal opening in the spine very often results in nerve damage and paralysis. She was 11 when she first attended Ability First. Noticeably one of just two disabled kids in town, she was not allowed to participate in P.E. class at school. Even so, McMurtry “always loved sports” and played basketball and baseball, skateboarded and climbed trees after school along with her “tomboy” sister and their neighborhood friends, even if it meant crawling to keep up at times.
She described her initial camp experience as “eye-opening” and recalled being slightly taken aback when surrounded by so many other kids in wheelchairs, asking herself, “Is this what I look like?” before settling into the joyous feeling of “these are my people!”
“There’s a big inclusion piece at this camp,” McMurtry glowed, referring to a number of interlocking opportunities. Disabled youth from rural areas, where they are “alone in their disability,” get to meet others in similar circumstances. They get to participate in sports that they may never have had the opportunity to play. Moreover, they get to interact with numerous volunteers, both disabled and non-disabled—including junior high and high school students, who provide the campers the chance “to practice social skills with their peers who are local volunteers.”
“There’s also a big independence piece,” McMurtry continued. “The coaches, the counselors, the nurses are teaching the kids, who are now away from home, about things like hygiene. For example, with kids who have fine-motor issues, like those with cerebral palsy, we’re teaching them about things like feeding and bathing themselves.”
Her independence is even broader.
“This camp opened so many doors for me—learning to water ski, traveling the world,” McMurtry reflected. “It was where I first learned to water ski, from Royce Andes [a coach from Biggs who invented the Kan Ski, a sit-down water ski designed for physically disabled skiers]. After I graduated from high school in ‘95, I started going skiing with him four or five times a week. After a while he signed me up for nationals, and after that I was hooked.”
A typical Ability First session has full days of sports activities and fun evenings of karaoke, movie-watching and excited chit-chat over dorm-hall dinners and at pizza parties.
Water skiing takes place at a private lake in a rural part of Chico, provided by a family whose son used to be a camper and returned this year as a volunteer. One day during this summer’s session, the hubbub on the large, shaded dock was noticeable as campers and volunteers moved about, talked with one another and conferred with Andes.
Campers who had come to ski needed to get situated one at a time on their sit-skis—life jackets donned, foot straps tightened and extra foam padding stuffed into strategic places to make the ski fit snugly and comfortably. Then they could enter the water to be towed around and around the lake.
Andes motored about the dock in his “sip-and-puff” electric wheelchair checking on campers’ sit-ski fits and answering various questions about such things as the appropriate sit-ski length and boat speed for each particular skier.
Andes is a hero and role model in the disabled water-ski community. He used to be an avid barefoot water skier before a water-skiing accident left him with a severe spinal-cord injury similar to that of late actor Christopher Reeve, except that Andes can breathe without a ventilator. Each year, the Western Region of the Water Skiers with Disabilities Association gives out an award in his name. The Royce Andes Award goes to a first-year skier at nationals who embodies Andes’ indomitable, positive attitude.
Andes’ current shining star is Jaclyn—first up for that day’s session.
“I love going first!” the perky, pony-tailed Jaclyn exclaimed as her sit-ski—specially designed for tricks—got lowered into the water.
Jaclyn took hold of the handle at the end of the rope attached to the boat. Quickly she was up on her ski and off down the length of the lake, executing awe-inspiring 360-degree spin moves.
“Look!” shouted out a young man on the dock, familiar with Jaclyn’s performance at last year’s camp. “She just did a 360 outside of the wake! Wow—I’ve never seen her do that before!”
After about 10 minutes and numerous 360s, Jaclyn’s arms finally seemed to tire and she went down, popping up in the water instantly with a huge smile on her face.
“Jaclyn’s a badass,” someone said to Andes.
“Yes, she is,” Andes answered, smiling.
In the evening, on the lawn in front of Esken Hall, where the campers reside all week, Jaclyn relaxed and talked with fellow camper Sarah Marks.
Sarah is 17, from Moraga, and her sport of choice is competitive snow skiing. Like McMurtry, she has spina bifida. Also like McMurtry, she comes across as self-possessed and confident. This would be her fourth and final year at the Ability First.
Sarah and Jaclyn animatedly discussed the upcoming pirate-themed Friday-night prom, which Sarah considered “the best part of the week.” She brought her high school prom dress; Jaclyn brought a pirate costume.
They also discussed the many pranks that are “built in” to the camp. Sarah referred to them as “icebreakers"—"The first time you get your face drawn on when you’re sleeping,” she explained, “that’s definitely an icebreaker!”
Pranks are part of camp life, Snedeker said, partly to make for a typical camp experience, and partly to challenge the campers to solve the problems posed by some of the pranks.
One year, dorm counselors “stole” the wheelchairs of five campers asleep for the night, including Sarah’s, and stacked them up in the hallway wrapped round and round in plastic wrap. Campers had to figure out how to extract their wheelchairs from this unexpected bundle and get them back to their rooms, which of course they did.
“Yeah,” Jaclyn interjected, “but one time they made it so that when you turned on the showers, beef broth came out. Beef broth in the shower—that’s not an icebreaker!”
The two teenagers also talked about their dreams and aspirations.
Sarah wants to become an elementary-school teacher. She also has as her “ultimate goal” to compete as a snow skier at the 2010 Paralympics in Vancouver. (The Paralympic Games are the equivalent of the Olympic Games for disabled athletes and are always held two weeks after the Olympics at the same location.)
Jaclyn is poised to follow in the footsteps of McMurtry and become a champion water skier. You can see it in her skiing, and you can see it in her eyes.
“Anything is possible if you just give it a little more effort,” she emphasized. “Everyone has challenges, and you just have to find a way to overcome them. I water ski, I play basketball.
“I have a can-do attitude. If anyone thinks I can’t do something, I like to go out and prove them wrong.”