But here's what I do know: As an experiential educator, I strive to not only provide dynamic experiences in safe environments for individuals, but I am constantly seeking out ways to guide individuals into the "growth zone" as one might call it. As humans, we have a tendency to sit with the comfortable on a day to day basis and that seems to work for us. We like our comforts, we like "knowing," and we sometimes don't do well with change. We have a tendency to be hard on ourselves, painting little perfect pictures of what success should look like, we determine at an early age that winning is better than losing, and sometimes we find ourselves asking, "At what cost?" The following is a true story. A single moment I had the privilege of witnessing and being in the presence of. It was so profound, so unbelievable, that it literally moved me to tears.
One of my staff who works at the indoor climbing wall at the Y approached me a couple weeks ago about bringing a group of 24 adults ranging in age from 18-21 years old.These adults are part of the Shoreline Community Based Transition Program. This program helps individuals with physical and mental disabilities learn job skills, living skills, and relationship skills in order to be functioning and contributing adults in an ever changing world.
A few weeks ago, 10 of these individuals came to the rock wall to climb and it was completely new territory for everyone. It was one of the best professional experiences I have ever been part of. It was great.
Fast froward three weeks: Now, I was going to be hosting 24 individuals with disabilities ranging from Cerebral Palsy to Developmental Delays, to Autism, to Down Syndrome. They were all going to be climbing on the wall. Yep. I was bordering on my growth and panic zone boundaries for sure. Have you ever had that feeling where everything is super chaotic around you and somehow you find peace and solace and feel nothing but grounded? That's exactly how Friday felt.
All of these wonderful, happy, smiling individuals walked into the lobby of the Y, excited, pulling out their membership cards ready to get the show on the road. We walked down to the gym and this amazing energy just grew. It was nothing special-just a bunch of people coming together for a common experience getting excited. We kicked off with a few fun icebreakers to get to know each other. I mingled around smiling from ear to ear listening to what people had to say about their favorite pizza topping and their favorite ice cream flavor. And then little did I know I was about to meet the person who would change my life forever...meet Lauren.
Lauren is an African-American female in her early twenties. Lauren lives her life with severe Cerebral Palsy, no function of her right side including her hand and arm, and also has a developmental disability. Lauren has no problem walking around independently and her voice...her voice sounds of confidence, strength, and pure grace.
The question for the icebreaker was about having any wish you wanted granted.
Lauren came up to me and put out her right hand, "Hi. My name is Lauren and if I could have any wish granted in the world, it would be to run as fast as I can." I stuck out my hand, "Hi. My name is Jen and if I could have any wish granted in the world, it would be to travel around the world for a year." "Why don't you?" Lauren asked me with a smile. I smiled back, thinking to myself that this woman knows her shit.
For the first time in a long time, I was nervous. I wasn't worried about keeping the group safe. I wasn't worried about having enough staff support. I was nervous about the end results. What were these individuals going to get out of this? Would they be okay physically? As an experiential educator, I am always thinking two, three, four steps ahead. How is this going to fit? How can I frame? How can I sequence? What's the question to ask here? How can I balance being empowering and instructional? Some of the climbers had been with us in the first round of climbing a few weeks back and had no problem stepping right up and demonstrating for the others bouldering and putting on the equipment.
Lauren came up to me, completely serious, about 6" from my face, "Jen, I want to climb. I can do it." I looked at my staff and had another staff come over. Lauren started off bouldering, climbing without a rope, and got about 6" off the ground. She fell off the wall simply because she couldn't hold her weight. Did it bother her? Hell know. She proceeded to say, "I want on the rope. Get me on a rope-I can climb the wall."
I harnessed Lauren up as she put both of her hands on my head and stepped through the leg loops. I put a helmet on her and walked her over to the rope. In that moment, it was her and I-nobody else existed in those next 20 minutes. I was kneeling down, looking up at her-my eyes locking with hers. That trust you get when you know someone has got your back-thats what happened. I had her back, and she had mine. I knew she was not going to freak out. I knew this would be a positive experience for her and she hadn't even started climbing yet. Two male staff were on either side of her to help get her started. I was belaying her and within seconds, she was a foot off the ground. Remember, Lauren has no use of her right arm or hand. She can only climb with three points of contact. And she went...UP. Two feet, three feet, five feet, six feet off the ground. Her legs straightened, she was reaching, pulling, using really good technique.
She looked down at me and the rest of the group. Her smile lit the place like the Vegas strip. "I DID IT! LOOK AT ME! I DID IT!" She gave me the thumbs up to be lowered. I lowered her gracefully to the ground. I couldn't see anything. My eyes were blurry, I felt hot, like I couldn't breathe. My hands were shaking. I was crying.
"THAT WAS AWESOME!" Lauren exclaimed. "THAT WAS SO AWESOME! I DID IT. I WON! JEN, I DID IT! I CLIMBED HIGH!" I was speechless. I unclipped her and walked her over to get her harness and helmet off. I was beyond moved, inspired. I was rocked to my core. My soul was turned upside down and inside out. This is what inspiration feels like.
Meet Lauren. Lauren taught me that success is so much more than achieving something. Lauren taught me that to be comfortable takes grace, courage, sparkle. It takes guts to be in this world. It takes guts to be a human being walking on this planet with 6.9 billion other people. It takes something to walk up to someone, put out your hand and tell them your name and the biggest wish you have ever had. It takes a big person to get in someone else's face and tell them what you want, what you need in order to be happy. It takes a hell of a lot of heart to try something most people would never let you near.
Lauren taught me that it's no big deal to go all in with your bets on trusting some hot shot 26 year old "hardcore" woman with your life while you climb this 30 foot vertical tower. Being hardcore is just stepping up and doing it, even in the face of the world telling you no. Out of all the people in this world I have ever met, big mountain skiers, free climbers, cliff jumpers, white water boaters, Lauren is the most hardcore of all.
Thank you Lauren. I hope we can climb again together soon.