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Amy Sharp and staff members Marika Marklin and Sean Vercellone just before her first zip line ride. After the ride she had this to say about the experience, "Exciting and scary because it was like nothing I ever did before and never thought possible. Zip lines are not usually accessible. Mixed emotions. It was scary because I was worried something bad would happen. It's exciting, though, because it makes you feel free."

True Friends - Camp Courage is not a school but a lot of learning happens there. One of the "classrooms" is the country's, and possibly the world's, first wheelchair accessible universal ropes challenge course, which creates outdoor experiential learning opportunities for people regardless of their physical abilities or disabilities. A giant swing and a walkway two stories above the ground provide insight about decision making and testing limits that may be self-imposed. A curriculum that involves wheeling up a 100-foot long ramp to a platform 25 feet above the ground, strapping into a sky chair, staring down a 600-foot-long zip line and then flying into the distance should be worth a diploma of some kind. Extra credit for "just doing it" and bonus points for taking the plunge with friends and family nearby to cheer you on and share the experience with you.
Camping Manager Jason Colvin created the design for the course and worked with Pennsylvania-based Universal Ropes Course Builders, Inc. to make the structure a reality. True Friends raised $100,000 for the project and received a matching grant from the Lions Club International Fund and other donations to fund the project. Construction started in March 2016, and the huge structure was completed in July of that year. The zip line is very popular but there is more to the Challenge Course. A person using a manual wheelchair can independently traverse the 150-foot-long outer circuit while clipped into a safety cable. If needed, an assistant or two can help with switching from cable to cable along the narrow bridges and platforms and provide help moving the user forward. The giant swing reminded me of the Sling Shot ride at the State Fair. After being strapped in, the rider is pulled sideways higher and higher until deciding the height is right for them. The release is tripped and the free fall begins and the rider arcs to the other side where motion stops for an instant until gravity reasserts its relentless force and reverses the direction of travel. Apprehension and weightlessness and exhilaration and accomplishment can be great teachers.
Jason told me one of the operating principles of the course is "Challenge by Choice." People are encouraged to do as much as they can but never urged to do more than they want. He told me about the young woman who was the first person to ever use the course. She had significant mobility limitations and extra time was needed to get everything set just right for her. She sensed that it might be too difficult to proceed and told Jason that it was okay if they couldn't make it work because she was used to being told she could not do things. Jason's first thought and immediate response was "the only person who can decide if you do this is you." Her tears of joy after completing the challenges spoke volumes about the value of the adventure.
James Carlisle is a great example of life-long learning. He is an accountant who happens to have Cerebral Palsy and he has been attending Camp Courage most of his life. I heard him talking with the volunteers helping him rig up for the giant swing and the comment "you probably have the record for oldest rider" was made. I talked with him after his ride, which he described as "scary but fun,” and he informed me he is 80 years old. I can only hope that I am still swinging when I reach my 8th decade. Billie Maher is about half Mr. Carlisle's age and has been coming to camp since 1994. She loves the Challenge Course and is proud of overcoming her fear of heights in order to experience the thrills. "The zip line is just like flying" and "this helps my confidence level and social life" are comments she made before starting on the course. Billie made a point of waiting on the launch landing for her friend, first-time zipper Amy Sharp, so they could do the activity together. Kind of reminded me of lyrics in an old Beatle's tune. "I get to fly with a little help from my friends" or something like that.
True Friends is a nonprofit agency providing life-changing experiences that enhance independence and self- esteem for over 5,400 children and adults with disabilities annually. They have camps near Maple Lake, Annandale, Eden Prairie and Bemidji and serve individuals from across Minnesota and the United States. The Challenge Course is one of their newest tools to help people enhance their confidence and well being. It opened in June of 2016 and received the Outstanding Program Impact Award from the International Association of Challenge Course Technology (ACCT) in February 2017. According to the ACCT the award focuses on the positive impact a program has on an individual "such as helping a therapeutic customer have a major breakthrough or perhaps customers with special needs be able to achieve access they once thought impossible."
True Friends provides programs for people with a wide range of developmental, physical and learning disabilities. More information about their programs is available at www.truefriends.org or by calling 952-852-0101.
The Challenge Course is available to schools, companies, public service and non-profit groups. Team building, communication and leadership programs are available and people of all ability levels can participate. Call 952-852-0103 or go to www.team-quest.org for more information.

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