GREENFIELD -- Until this year, Kathrynn Peterson had never been on a bicycle, had never paddled a kayak. But through the Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center's Accessible Recreation and Sports program, Peterson has been ditching her wheelchair and experiencing a lot of firsts.
On a recent Wednesday, Peterson, 19, and five of her classmates from Amherst's Souhegan High School paid their second visit of the summer to Sunset Lake for a day of kayaking. In a tandem kayak with para-educator Heather Bromley, Peterson paddled, navigated an obstacle course and made her way around the lake with a huge smile on her face.
"It's fun," Peterson said. "I can paddle by myself."
Kristin Harris, a certified therapeutic recreation therapist who coordinates the CMARS program, said kayaking is an activity that gives a wide range of people with varying degrees of disability a chance to have fun, learn a new skill and socialize with others.
For people like Peterson who are confined to wheelchairs or have limited lower body mobility, getting into a boat and using upper body strength to paddle is a new form of freedom.
"They can just go, go, go," said Harris.
Those who have lower body mobility can make use of special kayaks that are powered by pedals, like a bicycle. But even for those who can't paddle or pedal, kayaking with the help of a volunteer or staff member at Crotched Mountain can be incredibly soothing.
"For one of our clients, getting in and out of the boat is tough and can cause anxiety." said Harris, "But once she's on the water, she's as relaxed as she can be."
Souhegan High sends six students to the CMARS kayaking program each week, according to Joan Conley, transition facilitator at the school. Part of Conley's job is to help students with disabilities make the move out of public school and into adult living. That transitional process includes ensuring that those students have access to the same kind of recreational activities their peers have.
Conley, an avid skier, said she first learned of the CMARS winter skiing program at Crotched Mountain Ski Area in Bennington, where people with disabilities hit the slopes with adaptive equipment. Since then, she and her staff have helped students learn to ski, bicycle and paddle kayaks.
"These are activities that people of all abilities can do in New Hampshire, even after they're out of school," said Conley. "It's awesome."
The cost of CMARS is kept low through donations to the program and through the efforts of volunteers who help with the activities, said Liz LaRose, director of marketing and communications for Crotched Mountain.
Kayaking helps the clients at Crotched Mountain improve their motor skills, balance and cognitive skills, as well, said LaRose.
"We want to meet the individual where they're at and help them find their own success," said Harris.
For more information, go to www.crotchedmountain.org.