Community May 14, 2015

Recreation Therapy

Higher Ground Aims to Change Lives

When Kate Weihe, executive director of Higher Ground Sun Valley (formerly known as Sun Valley Adaptive Sports), began working at the nonprofit in 2008, trying to get veterans to come to Sun Valley and participate in their military program was “like pulling teeth,” she said.

But now, seven years later, Higher Ground’s military program has a waiting list of over 700 people, all eager to participate in one of their nine week-long summer programs that offer military personnel and veterans with traumatic brain injuries, post traumatic stress disorder, military sexual trauma and other polytrauma the chance to raft, flyfish, horseback ride or just hang out at Pettit Lake. Higher Ground also offers a non-military recreational program that serves Blaine County residents with physical, cognitive and developmental disabilities. This program, too, is growing in popularity, providing unparalleled recreational opportunities and a growing sense of community for approximately 60 people every summer. 

What makes Higher Ground’s military and non-military programs so popular is the nonprofit’s unique approach to therapy: recreation in the outdoors. The programs are all rooted in the idea that outdoor recreation is beneficial to one’s health and wellbeing. Higher Ground also provides an added therapeutic approach, which helps participants set personalized goals to build self-confidence, learn about themselves and reduce stress and anxiety. 

It’s not difficult to understand the appeal of the programs; we all love to be out and recreating. It feels good to spend time with friends and exercise and enjoy the natural beauty Sun Valley has to offer. Cara Barrett, recreation program director of the organization, joked that “a lot of people make fun of us (recreational therapists) saying, ‘what did you go to school for? To teach people to play games?’ But that’s basically what it is all about.”

Higher Ground’s recreational therapists work to figure out what participants’ passions are on the sports and recreation level, and facilitates their getting out to start building their confidence as well as their physical skills. Some of group’s recreational therapists were inspired to go into this line of work by having grown up with a loved one with an injury. However, what really unites them is that they all believe wholeheartedly in the power of the outdoors and recreation to help people achieve a better quality of life.

As technological advances are made to recreational equipment, the range of adaptive sports is expanding to include activities of even the most extreme variety—whitewater rafting, rock climbing, mountain biking. For example, Higher Ground offers a program with off-road hand cycles, in which participants go on weekly rides throughout the summer. They even do a multi-day biking trip around Stanley. The program is directed toward adults with spinal cord injuries, but everybody is welcome to participate.

“It’s an area that lots of organizations haven’t really broached yet,” Weihe said, “taking participants with spinal cord injuries, helping them to get out on these single-track trails that they didn’t think they would ever ride again. They are riding some pretty gnarly stuff.”

The organization has a fleet of off-road hand cycles and other adaptive sports equipment available to loan out, to help people take advantage of all the great outdoor recreational activities Sun Valley has to offer.  

Higher Ground’s military program similarly centers on the restorative power of sport and recreation, offering veterans the opportunity to enjoy a week of outdoor fun with their spouse or supporter of choice in Sun Valley. The week of all-expenses-paid recreation provides an opportunity for participants to meet veterans and form bonds with others facing the same challenges and injuries. Recreating together and relaxing in the beautiful wilderness setting instills a sense of fulfillment and empowerment and provides a much-needed sense of community.

These benefits aren’t short-lived. The organization has a three-year follow-up plan for every veteran that attends. This last year Higher Ground expanded its military program to include the families of veterans, and it was a huge success as families had a chance to relax and work on reintegration together.

“We’re planning to do more,” Weihe said with a smile.  

This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.