DULUTH — Aubrey Lucia sailed away with a big smile on her face, part of a crew headed off in a light rain from the sailing dock at the end of Park Point, off into the harbor and out of sight.
The 9-year-old, of Hermantown, moves around on land in a wheelchair. But she leaves the chair on shore when she’s sailing, part of Courage Kenny Northland’s outdoor adaptive sports program that’s celebrating its 40th anniversary this week.
Aubrey has spina bifida and also suffered a traumatic brain injury as a young child. But she’s smart as a whip, eager to try new activities and is looking forward to fourth grade almost as much as she looks forward to Tuesday evening sailing all summer.
“We get to help put the sail up and down, and steer it,’’ she said while donning a life jacket before a recent outing. “I don’t mind if we get wet. I’ve taken swimming lessons, too.”
Aubrey’s mom, Diamond Lucia, said her daughter has done well in a Courage Kenny power soccer league and dog sledding events, too.
“Best of all, it’s fun for her. It’s so great to see a smile on her face,’’ Lucia said. “And each one of these activities gives her more confidence.”
With mom or grandma left behind on shore while Aubrey is in the boat “it’s allowing her to be independent. She can do things with her peers her own age.”
“She’s getting a competitive side to her. But she’s also learning teamwork,’’ Lucia added.
There’s also camaraderie on the water among participants.
“I’m not sure how she does it, but there’s one boy (in the sailing program) who is non-speaking, non-verbal, but she communicates with him and puts a smile on his face, too,’’ Lucia said. ”How can you top that?”
40 years and counting
Twin Cities-based Allina Health combined their Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute and Courage Center Duluth together in June 2013 with the official name of the Duluth-based operations now Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute — Northland.
While the name is a mouthful, the mission is clear: Get people of all abilities outdoors, active and having fun. Courage Kenny now offers curling, power wheelchair soccer, cycling, sailing, alpine skiing and snowboarding, kayaking, full-day sea kayaking adventures on Lake Superior, indoor archery, indoor rock climbing, water skiing, swimming lessons and year-round yoga. There are also one-day community events and clinics, such as the Arrowhead Youth Games, winter dog sled adventures, rowing, scuba diving and an adapted fishing tournament in June on Fish Lake near Duluth.
Scott Anderson, of Duluth, has been involved in the adaptive sports program since its inception. In 1979, the Duluth effort started when some University of Minnesota Duluth students with disabilities wanted to form a local league so they didn’t have to drive to the Twin Cities to play wheelchair basketball. Courage Center Duluth began as a partnership with UMD Recreational Sports leader Dick Haney and the United Way. The first programs introduced were the Twin Port Flyers — a competitive wheelchair basketball team — adapted downhill skiing, swimming and track and field.
“I was one of their original players,’’ Anderson said. “A group of us in chairs used to hang out together, and they asked if we wanted to play basketball, so I did.”
Anderson, 60, has used a wheelchair since 1975 when he was shot “by a kid playing with an empty gun.” He has been especially involved in sailing. Courage Kenny has a long relationship with the Duluth Superior Sailing Association, which Anderson helped found and of which he is a past president. The association helps all new sailors get started, able bodied or not, with myriad sizes of boats for learning.
Courage Kenny “really is an amazing program. I’ve been involved with everything that came along,” Anderson said. “But sailing has been, for me, the best.”
Anderson recalls watching people being lifted from their wheelchairs into a sailboat and then setting off solo.
“It’s such a sense of freedom, moving along the water with just the wind,'' he said. "It’s really hard to describe what that feels like for someone in a chair."
Volunteers make program work
Courage Kenny's official goal is to offer adaptive recreational, sports and outdoor adventure activities that “improve self-confidence and encourage an active, healthy lifestyle.” The activities are staffed in large part by an army of volunteers and serve both youths and adults with physical disabilities and youths on the autism spectrum.
Last year, more than 400 volunteers made it possible for more than 400 people to participate in adaptive sports and recreation programs. It’s all run out of a small office in downtown Duluth, and Courage Kenny owns no sports facilities. The program depends on partner organizations to make facilities available.
Skiing has been the longest outdoor adaptive program in Duluth, underway since 1979 when volunteers Katie and Dick Fichter, who are still active today, helped establish the program at Spirit Mountain. Eric Larson began his role as program coordinator in 1994, pushing the program outdoors year-round with adaptive cycling, kayaking, sailing and water skiing.
“We have this canvas of outdoor opportunities in the Duluth area, there's so much available,’’ Larson said. “But for whatever reason we still had a bunch of people who couldn’t take advantage of those opportunities. We've tried to fix that.”
Many of the activities require one-on-one help from volunteers, usually people who love to ski, kayak, sail, bike or whatever. That includes Brittney Kemi, who volunteers for archery, biking and kayaking.
“I’ve been doing this for six or seven years now. I started as a college student and just kept it up. I’m a busy human; staying busy is just who I am,” she said. “It can be a lot. It’s sometimes two or three days a week for me. But it’s usually for two hours or less each day so it’s not a big deal. Like when I go biking, it’s something I would be doing anyway, but this way I get to do it with a kid or an adult.”
Kemi said she saw a notice of the need for volunteers and called Courage Kenny.
“Both my sister and a cousin have learning disabilities, so this is a way for me to combine my love of the outdoors with helping people who have either physical or cognitive issues,” she said.
As with many people who volunteer, Kemi said she gets more out of the effort than she puts it.
“To see their excitement, doing something fun, it’s just great,’’ Kemi said. “Some of the people who have visual impairments have never been on a bike alone before. To see them go off on a tricycle by themselves for the first time ever, that’s pretty amazing.”
Lillian Wodrich, 19, of Duluth was out on a sailboat on a recent Tuesday night as her mother, Debbie Freedman, waited on shore. Lillian has cerebral palsy.
“She’s been doing the adaptive yoga program for four years now. It’s so good to see her try new things to see that she can do them,’’ Freedman said. “Last year she was so nervous. We had to come a few times, and she just watched, before she’d get into the sailboat. But this year, she went right out the first time.”
“We are so grateful for these Courage Kenny programs,’’ Freedman said. “All of Duluth should be.”
Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute – Northland 40th Anniversary celebration
Friday, July 26, at the Park Point boat launch/Duluth Superior Sailing Association dock near the end of Park Point.
Free for past and present Courage Kenny volunteers and partners, their families and guests and for anyone in the community who wants to learn more about Courage Kenny adaptive sports.
3 p.m. Sea kayaking, sailing, rowing, stand up paddleboards (for all abilities) on Park Point.
5 p.m. Program and Picnic on Park Point (water activities will conclude at 4:45.)
6:35 p.m. Duluth Huskies game at Wade Stadium for volunteers and community partners. RSVP.
For more information on Courage Kenny adaptive sports programs — including to volunteer or to participate — go to www.allinahealth.org/adaptivesports or email Elizabeth.firstname.lastname@example.org or go to facebook.com/Couragekennynorthland.