It was a beautiful, bluebird day when I drove up to Staunton State Park on August 27th. The air was crisp and cool, atypical given the hot summer weeks we had been experiencing this year. Distinctive, too, were the reasons for my park visit. I was there to discover an inspiring program, the first of its kind in Colorado when it was founded in 2017. Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Track-Chair Program, run by more than 80 dedicated volunteers and completely funded by donations raised by the Friends of Staunton State Park, provides opportunities for people with disabilities to live life outside and to share outdoor experiences with friends and family.
The day before, Craig Hospital had brought two of its outpatients, Chris Luna and Nash Murath, to camp overnight at Staunton for the first time. Now, the morning after, they had several other exciting activities lined up: hitting the Davis Ponds Trail, fishing at Davis Pond, discovering the historical buildings and artifacts on the Staunton Ranch Trail, and archery after lunch.
Track-Chair Program Roots
Chris and Nash were able to take advantage of these activities through the Track-Chair program thanks to the legacy of avid hiker, biker and local community member Mark Madsen. In 2001, he had experienced a tragic car accident after swerving to avoid a deer in the road, paralyzing him from the neck down. He didn’t let that stop him from getting outside, though. When Staunton State Park opened in 2013, he became a regular visitor.
Ted Hammond, a park volunteer and former Craig Hospital employee, wanted to ensure that Mark would still be able to get out on the park’s trails. Working with Park Manager Jen Anderson and Craig Director of Therapeutic Recreation and Director of Military Programming Tom Carr, he realized the potential for a Staunton-Craig partnership: Staunton could provide track chair accessible trails, opportunities, and volunteers for Craig patients, while Craig could loan track chairs to those with disabilities hoping to enjoy the park.
“We basically talked about what would be helpful for folks in track chairs,” Amber Flores, Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist with Craig, explained to me. A woman with many years of recreational experience under her belt, she had these soft eyes paired with a firm stance that seemed to say, I will be gentle but expect me to encourage you to challenge yourself. I saw this reflected in the way she worked with Dean Schultz, a patient who joined us later in the day with her; while he preferred to sit back and watch the afternoon archery session, she convinced him to go on a short stroll up a trail with her afterwards.
In 2015, a partnership was formed between Staunton and Craig which allowed park visitors with disabilities, like Mark, to borrow track chairs from the hospital to get out on the trails. “[The program] just continued to build and build and so we started bringing out more people,” Amber explained.
Staunton Spearheads Track-Chair Accessibility
That same year, Staunton initiated a major redesign process of the park’s front country trails to make them more track chair accessible. Protruding roots and rocks were removed from the trails which were widened from 32-36 inches to 40-42 inches and leveled out from side to side. Switchbacks were removed, and additional access was created to the Davis Pond and Mason Creek. “[Staunton’s] done a really good job of following through and making sure there was everything anyone could need,” Amber told me.
Sadly, that August, Mark passed away in his cabin. In his memory, his family established the Mark Madsen Accessibility Fund for the community-based non-profit Friends of Staunton State Park. In 2017, Staunton was able to purchase its own track chairs thanks to the generous donations made at its annual barbecue fundraiser. The Track-Chair Program at the park was born.
Why It Matters
Staunton currently owns three Generation 1 Action Trackchairs, each named after Mark, but they were also demoing a newer model that day. I spoke with Mike Thompson, one of the volunteers leading the trip that day, a sturdy guy with a big heart. He explained that the program aims to upgrade the chairs every year because, while their current chairs allow participants to get outside, the new ones are much more stabilized, using shock absorbing wheels to minimize movement. For people like his wife, who has MS, small adjustments like that can make a world of a difference.
Everyone seemed impressed with the new model, which Mike jokingly called the “Ferrari” of track chairs, so I decided to give it a try myself. The difference in smoothness was night and day.
Wayne Parkinson, Director and President of the Friends of Staunton State Park and Track-Chair Program Coordinator, told me over the phone that the program received its 4th chair on Saturday, September 14th – the same new model that was demoed the day I visited.
Improvements aside, having track chairs to begin with was essential for Chris, Nash and Dean to be able to enjoy the park activities that day.
“I pretty much knew going in that I would need some help,” said Chris. Chris is the kind of down-to-earth guy you are drawn to automatically; he’s completely comfortable in his own skin. “Any time you pitch in any direction [in the chair] you get nervous,” he told me. Nonetheless, he explained that with an everyday wheelchair he would have needed someone to push him up to the campsite. With the track chair, he was able to get up to it on his own. “There’s a sense of independence with the chair,” he told me.
Participants Live Life Outside
Participants and volunteers alike highlighted that the Track-Chair program not only offers accessibility to outdoor opportunities, but also to authentic experiences.
“KOAs (Kampgrounds of America) are kind of glamping, so this was primarily for focusing on tent camping. How do you carry your food? How do you pack? We try to give patients the confidence to do it again,” Kimmy Strat, a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist for Craig, told me about their overnight camping trip with the program.
“Our whole goal with this program is if we were to do this in real life, what would it be like?” added Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist for Craig Cody Blubaugh. “If it rains, you camp when it rains!”
“It was nice to see that the campsite was off of the parking lot,” Chris said. He explained that at most parks he had visited post-injury, camping spots were usually in close proximity to the parking lots, which detracted from having a natural camping experience. “It’s almost a way of life for me,” he told me about spending time surrounded by nature. “I think the draw with Staunton is the way it looks, the trails. I mean, it’s almost 4,000 acres!”
At its Heart, the Volunteers
“Staunton’s most valuable resource might be its volunteers,” Chris told me. Wayne echoed that sentiment: “Without our donors and without our volunteers who go out on every hike we wouldn’t have this program.”
Many of them are local community members who donate to the Friends of Staunton State Park. 100% of Track-Chair Program funds come from donations made to the nonprofit, which holds the annual fundraising barbecue for the Mark Madsen Accessibility Fund.
Volunteers also assist participants with the chair and program activities. They make sure that they are transitioned comfortably into the chairs, that the batteries don’t run out mid-trail (a chair can travel about 4 miles on a charged battery) and that participants can enjoy the views by occasionally maneuvering the chairs for them with a hand-held joystick.
Mike said that volunteers not only come in on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays to assist with public hikes, but sometimes during the week as well (like the Tuesday I was visiting), working with participants ranging from 6 to 95 years old, and from quadriplegics to noverbal to wheelchair bound seniors.
Many of them relate personally to the program and its participants, as I learned when volunteer Terri Krue told me about her experience recovering from two brain surgeries and re-establishing her vocabulary. This is a program that the volunteers care deeply about. “It gives people the freedom of being out on the trails,” Terri said.
“I don’t think I’ve had a bad day with this program,” Mike said.
A Program Making Waves
With volunteers’ invaluable help, donor funded Trackchairs at hand, and a beautiful park to explore, the Track-Chair Program has become quite popular since its inception. “The word has spread so far [about the program] that technicians that are bringing out patients to the recreation room will talk about it,” Amber told me. Craig often hands out a Staunton State Park packet when it discharges patients.
When Chris was offered the opportunity to come to Staunton for two days, he immediately took it up. “Even from the parking lot, Staunton is a beautiful place,” Chris said. “It just looks untouched, very unique, you know? This was an opportunity that I definitely didn’t want to miss.”
“Up until last year staunton was the only park in the nation offering a program like this!” Wayne told me. The Track-Chair Program has been so successful that it has inspired similar programs in states as far flung as Florida and Michigan. And I could see why – after spending only a day with program volunteers and Craig staff and patients, the program inspired me to write this blog.
Written by Olivia Baud. Baud is a Communications and Media Intern for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.