This story is part of a Black Press three-part series, ‘Access’, which focuses on accessibility in Greater Victoria.
The first time Nathan Sperling went out on a kayak trip with Power To Be three years ago he was beaming.
Sperling was nine years old at the time, and an ambitious, energetic learner. However, with both Asperger’s syndrome and autism, Sperling sometimes had trouble fitting in with other groups.
“He’s very high functioning, so he can often do well with neuro-typical kids, but super on the spectrum programs aren’t really suitable for him,” explained his mother, D’Arcy Mahoney. “Other team sports were too structured for him, like in soccer where it’s ‘let’s play a game, let’s learn social skills.’”
Finding a balance in activities which would support Sperling’s unique needs wasn’t easy until Mahoney came across Power To Be, a nonprofit organization that tries to bring people with mental and physical limitations the chance to explore nature in an inclusive environment. The organization’s Adaptive Recreation Program brings activities like kayaking, surfing, hiking, camping, climbing, snowshoeing and more to a very wide group of people with all abilities.
“A lot of our participants live a life of ‘no’, ‘shouldn’t’ ‘can’t’ and ‘stop,’” said Carinna Kenigsberg, manager of partnerships. “At Power to Be it’s really about bringing out the ‘yes’ mentality, and how we can pull out those skills and recreate them later when they’re trying to get a job, develop a relationship or have a peer-to-peer encounter.”
Groups of people with varying physical and mental needs go out together to have fun in a way that focuses on inclusivity, something Mahoney felt immediately.
Now 12, Sperling attends Power to Be activities around once a month, and has made friends with other participants and volunteers.
Since he started the Adaptive Recreation Program, Mahoney said she’s seen an immeasurable amount of personal growth in her son.
“His confidence level is way higher,” she said. “He wants to be a stand-up comedian, so he’s got a relationship with staff and peers and has running jokes with them.”
Mahoney said she’s seen this confidence carry forward into other aspects of Sperling’s life, including in school and in other activities, such as Aikido.
“What really stands out is his ability to advocate for himself,” she said.
Since Power To Be began 20 years ago, more than 10,000 people have participated in the program. There is no age limit, so kids and adults can participate, and fees for the activities are heavily subsidized to sit at $10 each.
“There’s tonnes of studies around physical and mental health benefits about being physical in nature,” Kenigsberg said. “In nature you can see symbiotic relationships, that can help with social situations. Nature adapts, and there’s parallels in that where people also need to constantly modify and adapt.”
For Mahoney the opportunities brought forward by Power To Be has also allowed her a wider social network.
“For my family it’s been lifesaving. What autism can do is isolate us from a larger community because our kid doesn’t socialize,” she said. “But to have a community where our whole family is involved with other parents in similar situations… there’s real solidarity and that’s quite wonderful.”
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