The Best Experience I’ve had at UVic: Volunteering for CARSA’s Adapted Climbing Program

My hands were sweating. I wrung my climbing harness nervously, jerking my head towards the entrance of CARSA again and again, probably looking like some sort of neurotic bird in search of a stray bug. I took several gulps of water, trying (and failing) to look chilled out like the rest of the climbers in the gym. Snapping my head towards the entrance again, I wondered why on earth I’d ever agreed to this.

A few weeks earlier I had put my name down to be a volunteer for CanAssist (a UVic organization aiming to improve quality of life for people with disabilities) to teach youth with cognitive disabilities to rock climb. Countless people had told me how rewarding it is to work with individuals living with disabilities, yet I’d always been a bit hesitant to actually try it.

I hate to admit this, but part of me was scared. Scared that I wouldn’t know how to act, scared that something bad would happen to me or the person I was volunteering with. Scared of saying or doing the wrong thing, scared of broaching the topic of “disability” at all. I had never spent more than a few hours around people with cognitive disabilities. There were a handful of kids in my elementary school, but they had been carefully tucked into the corners of the classroom with an aide, removed from the “normal kids.”

I knew that my lack of understanding and fear had to be addressed, so when Alyssa Hindle from CanAssist came into one of my Recreation and Health Education classes looking for volunteers for the program, I convinced myself to sign up. And now, three weeks later, I was standing at the foot of the CARSA climbing tower, feeling like I was going to throw up.

Climbing passport

My head jerking finally paid off as I glimpsed a group of kids walk in, accompanied by several support workers. They made their way towards me with nervous smiles that matched my own, and I started to feel a little less like puking. I was paired with a shy boy who was non-verbal and had absolutely no interest in climbing.

That first session seemed to last forever as I struggled to connect with him and find a way to share my love of climbing. He was having none of it, and I felt self-conscious and awkward as he continually rebuked my efforts to engage him. After forty-five minutes of coaxing, I finally I convinced him to touch a single hold on the wall. It felt like we had accomplished an incredible feat, and I clapped and cheered, eliciting a bemused stare from him and a quick retreat away from me and the wall.

The support workers came by to gather up the participants, and I waved goodbye to my little guy, feeling a mix of relief, confusion, guilt and accomplishment. I slipped on my climbing shoes and bouldered absentmindedly for a while, reflecting on what had just happened.

First off, I felt guilty for being so scared of the participants. There had been no screaming, punching or bolting, as I’d imagined there might be. They were just normal kids, normal humans. For some reason I had been expecting them to be other-wordly somehow, and I’d feared a lack of human connection with them. That had turned out to be entirely false, and even now I feel guilty for admitting to my ignorance. Secondly, this was going to take some creativity. I had glimpsed a look of interest and curiosity in my little guy’s eyes when he looked at the other climbers, and I knew that if I could ease him into it gently enough, he could be a climber.

My hands weren’t sweaty the following week, and I greeted my little guy without a trace of a quaver in my voice. He wanted to lay on the mats and look up at the skylights in the roof, so I lay down beside him and we watched the birds flying by for a while. Eventually I convinced him to try touching a climbing harness, and he twirled it around in his lap, never once taking his eyes off the birds. Little steps.

During the third week, I persuaded him to try putting the harness on, an endeavour that took the better part of an hour, but resulted in us standing side by side in our matching gear. I was grinning like an idiot. He was looking up at the birds again.

On the fourth week I discovered his fascination with spinning things. The twirling lock on the carabiner was a huge hit, as were the swirling loops of the figure eight knot climbers use to attach themselves to the rope while climbing. Struck by a sudden flash of inspiration, I asked him if he liked to watch the spinning silks fliers in the circus. He shrugged and gave me a half nod, which I took to be an enthusiastic yes.

I told him that we could spin in the air together if he wanted, just like in the circus. These were the magic words. He turned around and looked up at me, marking the first time we had ever made eye contact. He nodded again, a full nod this time, and I nearly yelled with delight. We hurried over to the wall and I helped him tie his first figure eight knot. I told him I was going to lift him up off the ground a little bit, so he could swing around.

Me Belaying

Looking both terrified and amazed, he grabbed onto the rope for dear life as I lifted his small body off the ground. I sat down in my harness so I was swinging too, and we slowly twirled around each other. He reached out and grabbed my hand, squeezing it with astonishing strength. Thinking he must be panicking, I almost lowered him to the ground, but as I searched his face I saw a hint of a smile playing around his lips. We spun around again and again, and when we finally touched back to earth he jumped up and down and punched the air with his small fists, more animated than I had ever seen him.

Last week, he climbed for the first time ever. He didn’t go very high, probably no more than four holds above the ground, but he was climbing. I stood below on the mats, looking up at him and feeling overwhelmed with emotion. To passers-by this small act would seem insignificant, but for us this was the victorious result of five weeks of trust-building, coaxing, friendship and learning.

There are only two weeks of the program left now, and I doubt he and I will be breaking any climbing world records before it ends, let alone climbing up the entire height of the wall. But that’s far from the point. For him, the program offered a fun skill that will hopefully increase his fitness, social interactions and engagement in the world of rock climbing. For me, the program provided the opportunity to immerse myself in a new and uncomfortable experience, and to change my perspectives as a result.

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2 Responses

  1. Ali says:

    Love this Em! Great story

  2. Anne says:

    Amazing post — really captures the perseverance and emotion!

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