In 1985, Meeche White and Pete Badewitz, a veteran of the Vietnam War, started Park City Handicapped Sports Association (PCHSA)—an organization that eventually became the National Ability Center (NAC). They built the organization from their home, and after receiving a grant from the Disabled American Veterans of Utah, they began providing ski lessons for veterans at the base of Park City Mountain. Over the decades, donors both known and anonymous have provided funding, support, and 26 acres of land located at Quinn’s Junction on the eastern edge of Park City. What began as a small outdoor adaptive program is now a world-renowned organization helping to transform the lives of thousands of people every year.
White and Badewitz weren’t the only ones with big ideas and dreams of changing lives by “challenging and expanding one’s notion of ability through meaningful outdoor adventure.” In 1978, Splore founder Martha Ham and Ken Sleight Expeditions partnered up to host the first accessible rafting trip on the Green River. Then, in 2017, Splore and the NAC joined forces in order to provide a wider variety of activities. Today, Splore serves as the adaptive outdoor adventure arm of the NAC, offering a host of activities for people with different abilities, including a summer favorite: river rafting in Moab, Utah.
An Experience for Everyone
Danny Glasser is the CEO of the National Ability Center, and he loves his job. In his role, he oversees more than 2,000 acres of trails, an equestrian center, a lodge for short-term stays, a multipurpose facility, an archery range, and partnership programs at both Jordanelle Reservoir and Deer Valley Resort. Although his job might be complicated, when asked about the overarching mission of the NAC, he puts it very simply:
“Our focus is to take a variety of different populations who are usually told, ‘No, it’s too hard to do that, we can’t make that work,’ and we say, ‘Yes!’ We find a way to enable those populations to get out in the outdoors and enjoy what so many of us here in Utah love, which is to get out and about, experiencing the hills, the mountains, the ski slopes, and a lot of other places.”
Like their motto says, “Whether you are a never- ever, an accomplished athlete, or somewhere in between, we welcome you, your family, and your friends.” Most of the NAC’s programs cater to those with a different ability or disability, and many have been designed with inclusion as a first priority. But while the focus is simple, the industry has not always been friendly to participants who didn’t fit the traditional mold, which is why Glasser sees his work as vital to the community.
“It is transformative to watch our veteran population rediscover that which they were before an injury—to experience the adrenaline rush again,” says Glasser. “It is empowering to watch those who never had an opportunity, because they were governed by a different ability, to suddenly feel the thrill of skiing downhill, mountain biking, or camping and rock climbing with their family. It’s transforming to see them freed by it. To share in that discovery and experience is just wonderful. It’s amazing to see.”
A Community Experience
The NAC’s usual clientele includes a host of different people. About 30 percent are veterans who often suffer from post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries, wounds from active combat, and amputations. Another third of the NAC’s participants are part of the neurodiverse community, who find themselves on the autism spectrum or suffer from ADHD or anxiety disorders. The rest of the group is made up of people who have conditions like multiple sclerosis, Down syndrome, or cerebral palsy.
“Often these people struggle with something that inhibits them from feeling comfortable to get out and into the outdoors,” Glasser explains. “The programs that we have are enabling those populations to experience different things.”
The National Abilities Center sees about 7,000 people and provides about 37,000 experiences each year, but those numbers aren’t only for individuals who are part of their underserved populations. Because outdoor recreation is usually more fun with friends, Glasser and the NAC make community connections the center of their work, meaning families, friends, teammates, coaches, mentors, and volunteers are all encouraged to get involved.
For many families with a member who is disabled or has difficulty with traditional outdoor recreation experiences, participating in various activities can be daunting, challenging, and expensive, often creating situations where the family has to choose between each member doing something different or simply doing nothing at all. But the NAC proves that isn’t the case. Because their facilities are equipped with state-of-the-art adaptive equipment, almost anyone—no matter the disability, physical injury, or cognitive ability—can participate.
The NAC’s current suite of gear ranges from monoskis to mountain bikes and everything in between, and if they don’t have it, they’ll get it. Glasser is adamant that the NAC will never turn anyone away. With the financial help of many generous donors, the organization will do everything they can to help provide the means for anyone, anywhere, to participate in their programs.
A Paralympic Dream
One of the best things about the NAC is its training opportunities for Paralympic athletes. Orlando Perez is one such competitor, and he has a very simple message: “The National Ability Center saves lives.”
Perez was born and raised in Puerto Rico but found himself a parapalegic at age 19 after an accident during a United States military training exercise.
“Serving in the military was something I always wanted to do,” he says. “I felt cheated because it got cut short.”
As he grappled with his new reality, Perez became depressed. “
You feel less because you’re not able to do the things you used to,” he explains. “You have an idea of what you wanted to be, how life was going to look, but then that completely changes. Instead of me attacking life, it felt like life was attacking me.”
One day, while at the VA hospital, Perez saw an ad for the National Veterans Wheelchair Games and decided to look into them, which resulted in him competing in wheelchair basketball for almost two decades. When he realized that his basketball career was coming to a close, he decided to take up skiing. After a brief stop in Colorado, where he met his wife, he headed to Utah, and after joining the National Ability Center, he made the United States Paralympic skiing team and competed in the Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympics. Perez also made history as the first athlete to represent Puerto Rico in the Winter Paralympic Games, and he credits his coaches and the NAC with his success.
“My coaches and the organization aren’t there for just a job. They really care about helping me individually and as an athlete,” he says.
And while Perez knows that it sounds “corny,” he really believes that the NAC saves people. “I think disability brings up fears about anxiety and depression that can lead to people ending their lives, but programs like the NAC help,” he says. “I’ve lost so many friends to suicide. I wish they could have found programs like I found that took me out of it.”
Finding the Right Fit
Andrew Haraghey, a two-time Paralympic athlete, has always loved being active. And the NAC has been paramount in helping him achieve his goals and make his dreams a reality.
After contracting viral encephalitis as an infant, Haraghey developed cerebral palsy in his legs. With limitations to his mobility, he tried to find a sport he loved, but none of them fit—until he found skiing. He discovered skiing when he was 8 years old and fell in love with it. Over the course of three years, Haraghey worked with his mother to build up endurance in his legs.
“My mom would hold up a ski pole and I would hold on to the other end, and I’d drag her down the mountain,” he explains. “I slowly built up my strength, and one day I just let go of the pole and started going. I haven’t stopped since.”
This hobby allows him to keep up with his friends. “It’s freeing,” he says. “I don’t feel limited when I ski.”
Haraghey moved to Utah when he was 14 and began working at the NAC to eventually join the Paralympic ski team, which he made in 2018 and in 2022. The organization helps him train five days a week, provides top-of-the-line equipment, and ensures that everyone stays active.
“Instead of going to physical therapy, I ski or mountain bike,” Haraghey explains. “In the disabled world, not being active can worsen the disability. But getting outdoors or getting into recreation boosts your quality of life.”
When asked what advice he would offer to others, he stated, “There’s always some way to work around a disability and make it a positive opportunity. Not every disability means that there’s a negative outcome. Sometimes it just means that the outcomes are different or that you approach the problems differently.”
Something to Look Forward to
Since the Paralympics may not be everyone’s goal, the NAC has lots of other programs for people who are looking to get outdoors—people like young Carter Johansen.
When Carter was a toddler, he was diagnosed with Coffin-Siris syndrome, a condition that causes various degrees of intellectual disability, global developmental delay, and autism spectrum disorders. He also struggled with respiratory infections, plagiocephaly (flat head syndrome), torticollis (which causes a tilted neck), and dysphagia (a condition that makes drinking liquids difficult). It was during one of Carter’s many doctor’s appointments that his parents learned about the NAC, and specifically about their equine therapy program. Because the gait of a horse mimics that of a human’s, equine therapy helps strengthen the core muscles in those who struggle with both upper and lower body disabilities.
Brion Johansen, Carter’s father, remembers the first month being difficult. “Carter loved the horses, but he was very intimidated. They are big animals, and they make big noises and big movements,” he says.
But they kept at it, and eventually Carter grew more comfortable around the animals.
“Carter doesn’t have the massive anxiety anymore to get on the horse,” says Brion. “Now, his whole week is based on ‘What day is Token Day?’”
Much of Carter’s life has been full of poking and prodding, testing, being put under anesthesia, and other procedures that are uncomfortable, scary, and painful. Brion explains, “There are just a lot of things that he doesn’t do well with because he doesn’t understand or know if they are going to hurt. To see how that has morphed over the time we’ve been going to the NAC has really been life changing. I really think that it has helped Carter’s ability to be able to approach things that are unfamiliar, that he might view as difficult.”
He continues, “There are definitely physical benefits of being on the horse, but the confidence that has come from it is probably the best thing that we’ve seen because there has been so much in his life that has been uncertain. For him to have this outlet where he can go that is about Carter just enjoying being with the horse and the volunteers and staff is just an awesome experience.”
Brion sums up the National Ability Center this way:
“People who do this kind of work and dream up these types of programs—there’s not enough of them. They’re like angels because there’s so much need that most of us don’t recognize. It’s so easy to become wrapped up in our own lives and not see the need around us. To have people who see and do something about those needs is just phenomenal.”
For more information about the National Ability Center, visit discovernac.org.
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