Expanding Possibilities Through Youth Adaptive Sports

Lisette and mom Natalie Runyan in their element at Ute Lake

Courtesy photo: Lisette and mom Natalie Runyan in their element at Ute Lake.

From skiing to rock climbing to sailing, the Adaptive Sports Program New Mexico makes sports and recreation accessible to all

By Camille Romero

As the development director for the Adaptive Sports Program New Mexico (ASPNM), a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing the lives of children and adults with disabilities through recreation, I have the privilege of working with many unique individuals and families around the state. Since its founding in 1985, ASPNM has placed a special emphasis on working with youth with special needs, encouraging them to develop a healthy lifestyle while developing new skills and, most importantly, having fun in our beautiful outdoors. With activities ranging from adaptive skiing and snowboarding to rock climbing, waterskiing, archery, sailing, rafting, paddleboarding, and more, ASPNM gives those living with disabilities year-round opportunities to stay active and engaged while building a community of support and friendship.

While concepts like inclusion and accessibility are very common today, that wasn’t necessarily the case in the mid-eighties, when a group of dedicated skiers got together to form the Adaptive Ski Program at Sandia Peak in Albuquerque. Those founders recognized that the ski slopes weren’t physically accessible to all and took steps to open the door for everyone to experience the joy and exhilaration that accompanies a day on the slopes. For many years, the organization functioned exclusively as an adaptive ski program; however, recognizing that the need for recreational activities existed year-round, ASPNM expanded the scope of its services ten-plus years ago, adding a variety of new activities that place throughout the year and at locations throughout the state.

Today, inclusivity continues to be at the very heart of ASPNM’s mission and values. ASPNM’s programs are open to everyone with disability, no matter their age, ethnicity, race, gender, financial status, or location. If someone wants to attend, ASPNM makes every effort to ensure that they can safely do so, whether they use a wheelchair, have vision impairments, or are on the autism spectrum. ASPNM’s programs are available for children as young as 5. While youth account for the largest percentage of our participant base, ASPNM’s programs are open to individuals of any age. In fact, our most senior participant during the most recent 2023-24 ski season is 88 years young. We highlight our age range to demonstrate that our programs can have long-term impact over the course of our participants’ lifetimes. Our athletes never age out of their participation with ASPNM and can continue to build their skills and enhance their physical and mental health at any life stage.

Camille Romero & Lisette Runyan at Ute Lake

Courtesy photo: Camille Romero & Lisette Runyan at Ute Lake.

Over my tenure with the organization, I’ve been on many adventures at ASPNM’s programs throughout the state, forming strong friendships with the volunteers, participants, and family members that are the heart of ASPNM. One such friendship is with 13-year-old Lisette, a Santa Fe 7th grader, and her mom, Natalie Runyan. I’ve known Lisette since she was 6, and she has always been a great conversationalist, fun and funny, and very confident. She loves to swim and would swim to the middle of a lake if you let her. She enjoys going for long meandering walks, swinging super high on a swing, and playing with her dogs and cats. In other words, Lisette is a typical young teen with lots of interests and activities.

What differentiates Lisette from her peers is the fact that she was born with Down syndrome and had complications in her first eight years involving her heart, lungs, and leukemia. While it would be natural for any parent to want to keep their child somewhat sequestered to protect their health, Natalie felt it was equally important that Lisette experience the outdoor adventures that abound in New Mexico. “Our first ASPNM event was at Ute Lake near Tucumcari in 2016, where Lisette mostly swam until she was blue and shivering. She loved it. As a solo parent, I was relieved to be able to explore new activities that I wouldn’t have felt confident doing with her otherwise. Over time, I’ve learned to let Lisette have adventures on her own with the other athletes and volunteers, which enriches her life immensely and gives me a chance to rest and relax, too.” Today, Lisette is a regular at many ASPNM events, including skiing, climbing, and of course ASPNM’s various water sports activities. ASPNM strives to be a resource for families like the Runyans, who might need a few adaptions or a bit of extra support in order to partake safely in various sports and recreational activities. While our staff and volunteers tailor each experience to the needs of a given athlete, ASPNM events are organized in a way that creates a community where persons with disabilities feel empowered, accepted, and supported.

Lisette and Natalie Runyan, middle center, having some fun with other participants at the Ute Lake Watersports Camp

Courtesy photo: Lisette and Natalie Runyan, middle center, having some fun with other participants at the Ute Lake Watersports Camp.

Children and adults with special needs often feel isolated and overlooked. In New Mexico, recreational options, organized activities, and accessible facilities are limited for those with disabilities despite the state’s immense pride in its recreation offerings. For these individuals, exercise is often relegated to physical therapy settings, with little beyond. Inactivity and social isolation can lead to poor physical and mental health, which impacts not only the individuals but their caregivers and families. By creating the opportunity for individuals with disabilities to be active and engaged at any age, ASPNM empowers them to lead a happy and healthy lifestyle. Beyond the physical health benefits afforded by ASPNM’s programs, many of our youth participants report an increased sense of self-confidence and independence that permeates into their lives outside of ASPNM. Through ASPNM, our participants develop a large circle of support that includes fellow participants and their families, our dedicated staff members and committed volunteers.

Ginger Williams, ASPNM Board Member and parent of another 13-year-old ASPNM athlete, puts it thusly: “Ephraim has been faced with a world that has told him all the ways he doesn’t fit in and isn’t capable. He’s been measured against peers in settings that are not built for him. Through his participation with ASPNM he feels like an athlete, he knows that he excels at something, he is supported and loved and celebrated. We are so grateful for the organization, the volunteers, and the supporters who make it all possible.”

Climbing at Cattle Call Wall

Courtesy photo: Climbing at Cattle Call Wall.

Community support is the lifeblood of ASPNM. In order to provide 1,000-plus adaptive lessons to nearly 300 athletes each year, ASPNM relies on a dedicated network of over 250 volunteers throughout the state. There are countless roles for volunteers within ASPNM; some receive special training to teach skiing, snowboarding, and climbing lessons to ASPNM’s athletes; others help with administrative and fundraising efforts; and others conduct outreach on ASPNM’s behalf. In addition to volunteer support, ASPNM receives generous in-kind support from Ski Santa Fe, which serves as the homebase for ASPNM’s largest program, its annual winter sports program, in which over 150 athletes participate annually. Collectively, these efforts enhance the diversity and inclusivity within the abundant recreational opportunities in our state, creating an environment where individuals of all abilities can actively participate and flourish.

To learn more or get involved with ASPNM, please visit ASPNM.org.

Camille Romero has been the director of development of the Adaptive Sports Program New Mexico since 2015. Camille has worked in nonprofit leadership and development for nearly 20 years and is an avid outdoor enthusiast.


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