The beautiful thing about making a choice is the abundance of opportunities you and I get to practice making them every day. From the moment we wake up we are deciding what to wear, sip on coffee or tea, or creating plans for the weekend – making the most of our free time. These choices and experiences often lead to a fulfilling life. But what if making a choice was difficult? What if a choice wasn’t provided? What if there is recreational opportunity but it is not clear how to access it? I ponder what would the quality of my life be if I missed recreational opportunities.  A large part of how I define myself is by the activities that bring joy to my life.

As Recreational Therapists, we help clients to address challenges by using activities they love or by exploring new, engaging leisure pursuits. This gives clients an opportunity to explore how their leisure lifestyle can help them become more independent and face their unique challenges. We all know the choices we make in our free time directly impacts our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. When working with the students at The Alyssa Burnett Adult Life Center my goal is to create opportunities for all with varying abilities to engage in community activities, to enhance their quality of life, and show them there are choices.

“Ah-hoy Sailors!”

Today is the first day of sailing class. Looking around the room one could feel the vibrant energy mixed with nervousness. As we gathered our belongings and loaded into vehicles, staff heard students chatting excitingly with one another and seeking reassurance and support. “I’m not a great swimmer”, “Will there be life-jackets?”, and the start of a 12-week running joke: “Who’s going to be shark bait?” To me it was a big sigh of relief, what was once an idea on paper flourished into an opportunity for our students to experience. My role is just beginning. 

Cash attempts to hide how nervous he is around his peers on the way to Magnuson Park. He quickly switches topics and begins to persuade staff to create an ‘ABC’ WWE wrestling program while simultaneously trying to show the latest WWE “staff matchup” he created on his phone. The moment we see the water I look back in the review mirror and take a moment to observe. His eyes get wide, he lowers his phone and without skipping a beat states, “Umm, so I’m kind of scared. I’ll admit it. I will try sailing, but I don’t want to get into a small thing… you know… THE kayak.” This was the first of many choices. In this moment, I reassured everyone that we would only be sailing today, but to myself I noted this may be a personal goal for Cash by the end of the program. 

Weeks go by and Cash, as with the others, became more comfortable around the water. Cash zips up his life jacket, buckles up and pulls on the straps to ensure a snug fit. Walking up to a staff he says, “Will you buddy check please.” This phrase indicates checking to see if there’s a large gap and if the lifejacket will slip over the head if one was to go in the water. He’s cleared and off he goes around checking all his classmates making his way towards the boat yard to help carry out a sail.

Hobbie Waves are easy-to-rig, easy-to-sail speedsters that bring out smiles and lots of fun. Cash, a classmate, and I are gliding our way back from a trip to Matthew’s Beach when the wind suddenly dies. As I’m radioing for a motorboat rescue and thinking the students will get nervous it was Cash and the fellow classmate that had another plan of action. Cash grabs the paddle and starts rowing. His fellow classmate takes the tiller arm to keep the sail steering towards shore and I take the other side and start paddling. We moved a few feet forward before the exciting tow rescue began. We were in a fit of giggles and soaking wet.

Within a few weeks students were transitioning on and off boats independently, taking sail rides and starting to learn how to paddle forward in a kayak. Cash would help set kayaks in the water, hold them steady for others to get in, or choose to sail. Feeling confident in his sailing skills and seeing his progress since the first day, I wanted to nudge him into kayaking.  I asked him to be my partner so I could show him “something really cool”. This catches his attention. He chooses to sit in front, and we take a moment to float near shore. “You let me know when you’re ready to go” I say. “It’s up to you how far you want to go but the surprise is just around the pier” as I point in front of him. “Okay. Ready” he says. “Whoaaa. Whoa. Slow. Slow… Sheeze” as he realizes the kayak rocks with the waves. His body becomes tense and rigid. We move slowly towards the opening of the lagoon. As we come around the corner I point to the trees, “See it just there… what bird is that?” He answers, “It’s a Bald Eagle!” Cash relaxes a little and we paddle around watching, hoping to see it swoop down and catch a fish. Eventually we make our way back to the Center and as we walk through the doors, I overhear Cash sharing with those in the hall, “I did it! Faced my fear. I can now say I like kayaking!”

My training as a recreational therapist focused on shaping the sailing program around a leisure ability model. My role started as guiding the activity with consistent encouragement then transitioned into allowing the students to rise and feel empowered by the skills they mastered. The program ended with students motivated to be outside, having an increased freedom of choice and a desire to share the experience with family and friends in the community.

As I stand on the shore watching the sailboats come in, sounds of laughter and splashes of water come my way. I see Cash on a Kayak returning from the lagoon having just checked out the turtles on a log. I glance behind me at the picnic table and see ABC families connecting over a BBQ lunch. Together we feel a sense of accomplishment, and I know that my role is complete.


Whitney is a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist whose primary role is to cultivate community partnerships and assist  student interns and volunteers at the Alyssa Burnett Center.  Whitney enjoys developing recreational classes and guiding students to success and memorable experiences. In her leisure time you can find her outdoors backpacking, hiking and snowshoeing.