The statewide program seeks to integrate fun, challenging outdoor activities with leadership development training for middle and high school students from various backgrounds who have physical and sensory disabilities. It involves a two-year commitment from participants and welcomed its first student cohort in spring 2020 after being established by the Washington State Leadership Board through a partnership with the Office of the Lt. Governor, and non-profit organizations Outdoors For All, and No Barriers.
The students are Ritika Khanal, a Lynnwood resident who is a junior at Mountlake Terrace High School, and Finn Paynich, an Edmonds resident who is a junior at Edmonds Heights K-12 School. Both of the students are visually impaired and have been participating since the program’s inception last year.
The two-year fellowships, which are offered at no cost to participants, have a rigorous application process that includes essay responses and interviews. The program is intended to take students from across the state on a series of 14 outdoor excursions featuring activities such as skiing, hiking, and camping. Those outings are meant to push participants by taking them outside of their comfort zones and also designed to function alongside an online and in-person leadership development curriculum that hones the students’ skills, teamwork, and confidence.
Due to gathering restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, the program hasn’t been able to hold any outdoor events it had previously planned for its entire group of students statewide. Throughout the last year, program participants have instead been engaging in virtual physical activities and leadership training sessions held on Zoom.
Shifting from a program that was intended to provide in-person outdoor experiences to almost exclusively online activities while indoors has presented challenges for its participants. “Figuring out how we make the program accessible, how do we incorporate all of these disabilities to make sure that everyone’s included has been a challenge but a good one,” Khanal said. “Because I think we’re always learning, we’re always teaching the people around us as well.”
Paynich said that planning for a game of bingo on Zoom involved figuring out how to get the bingo boards to everyone and make sure those were enlarged for people with visual impairments, or in Braille for those who are blind, and also having a sign language interpreter present for participants who are deaf.
“It’s been a lot of improvising and of course we’re learning all sorts of leadership skills,” said Paynich, who identifies by they/them pronouns. Those educational components include self-advocacy “training on how to speak up for yourself, because that’s really important when you have a disability and you need like accommodations,” they said.
Because the program first started amid the COVID-19 pandemic, most participants haven’t yet had the chance to meet one another other outside of online activities. “It’s kind of hard to get to know each other when we’re not in-person but that’s what we’ve been doing — playing games and planning stuff together – I think it’s getting to be a pretty tightly knit group,” Paynich said.
Online team-building activities have included yoga, taekwondo and physical exercises. Most recently, the students organized bingo and trivia events. The bingo games focused on things that group members have in common related to their disabilities and individual experiences. The trivia questions were crafted by each participant related to personal interests, including video games, musical theatre and literature. As a result, the trivia questions helped the students become more familiar with each other.
Despite not yet being able to have in-person events for the whole group, both Khanal and Paynich said the program’s experiences have still been valuable to them personally.
Khanal said the online taekwondo activity was particularly memorable since instructors had to incorporate “practicing the moves and the stretches” to be inclusive for a range of disabilities. “They tried to describe everything, and they had sent us the kicking targets by mail,” said Khanal, who added that she found the learning activity to be quite challenging, “I had an eye-opening experience, pun not intended, but it was interesting to get that even if it was virtual.”
Paynich said they liked the “sense of community” presented by the program. “There’s so much isolation within COVID and even just without (it) – sometimes when you’re in a marginalized group like the disabled community, you don’t always see people like you around,” Paynich said. “It’s just nice being able to go to a group full of people with different disabilities that can all relate to the idea of ableism” and have similar understandings based on their life experiences.
“It’s really important to take all of these kids from around Washington who are really diverse in their identities and cultural backgrounds” and “train them about how to stand up for themselves,” Paynich continued, “because it’s kind of hard to know what to do because most people don’t face ableism, so they don’t know how to prepare you for how society treats disabled people.”
In addition to planned outdoor or physical activities, the program incorporates materials for students to learn about further developing leadership skills. The curriculum includes video lessons and speeches from people who have overcome societal and personal challenges due to being considered disabled. Participants then have discussions and share their reflections based on the lesson’s presentation.
One of those concepts is how to live a “no barriers lifestyle,” which Khanal described as turning life’s challenges into learning experiences and using those “to overcome any barriers in your way.” She added the group also talks “about different leadership things that we can incorporate into our own lives.” The Boundless Washington activities offered remotely have prepared students for the time “when we do get out there (for outdoor group excursions), we can, you know, hit the ground running,” she added.
Students also receive civic lessons about local and state government systems and processes, such as how bills are introduced and passed. Khanal said she plans to study political science and communications in college and was first inspired to participate in the program because of the involvement of former Washington State Lt. Governor Cyrus Habib, who is completely blind, in launching the Boundless program.
“As much as it’s an outdoors program and it’s a leadership cultivating program, it’s really giving the opportunity to make connections and network as well,” Khanal said. “The people that kind of started this program, they’re fantastic people, they have an incredible background, they are incredibly hard workers,” and have many networking events with their statewide connections at multiple levels, she added.
“It’s really important to know your rights and just to remember that you deserve to be helped and you don’t have to just wait around,” Paynich said. “You should always speak up for yourself and not let people treat you badly because disabled people do have rights and they deserve to have rights.”
Khanal and Paynich said there have been some small group outings they participated in, such as a hike and an outdoor taekwondo lesson, but both are looking forward to when regularly planned statewide group activities can take place. Members of the program are planning a group kayak outing for later this spring.
Paynich looks forward to going on more hikes and participating in a variety of other outdoor activities such as climbing, swimming and boating.
Khanal reported being happy that the program requires a two-year commitment from its participants. “Thankfully we have another year to kind of experience the outdoors as they intended,” she said. “I’m just looking forward to getting out.”
— By Nathan Blackwell