Growing up I spent lots of time in the woods, I find the wilderness to be a source of inspiration and rejuvenation. I was in Boy Scouts for 10 years and  I learned a lot about camping and respect for nature. I looked forward to summer camp every year.

I was on campus at Paul Smith’s College in the summer of 1992 and fell in love with the lean-to lifestyle. As a Culinary student, I went on to work as a chef for 10 years. In 2004 I was hired as a chef instructor. Two weeks before I was supposed to have my first freshman class of chef students I experienced a diving accident and became a quadriplegic who uses a power wheelchair.

After my spinal cord injury I was no longer able to spend time in the backwoods. I had heard about John Dillon Park but never thought it would be a possibility because I needed a lot of care. It was difficult for me to transfer from my chair to the bed, and I depended on other people to dress my lower body among other things.

It would be another 11 years until I could get to John Dillon Park. Within those 11 years, I attended classes online and obtained my Bachelor’s Degree in Human Services. I also worked for several years helping people with disabilities at the Tri-Lakes Center for Independent Living.

In October 2018 I inquired about being involved and was invited to an advisory board meeting. It became apparent right away that I was in a position to help get more people with disabilities to the park. I presented my ideas to the advisory board in the spring of 2019 and was hired as Outreach Coordinator.

The first time I camped in 2016 was only possible thanks to friends who were willing to do whatever it took. I wasn’t sure how it was going to go but my friends knew how much it would mean to me. My first trip to the park was life-changing. I had not been in the outdoors like that for 12 years. After my third year, in 2018, I decided to reach out and see how I might be able to get involved. I was invited to the advisory board meeting as a consultant for the accessible showers. It was at this meeting that I knew that there was definitely a place for me here.

With my background in independent living I am very comfortable and educated about people with disabilities. I spent the whole winter thinking about the ways to increase the attendance of people with disabilities. I came up with the happy camper initiative. In the spring I turned my ideas into a presentation for the Advisory Board. After that I was offered a position as Outreach Coordinator.

In 2019 I became a student of the park. I went for three nights each in June, July, and August, as well as a weekend in September. I took a whole different approach. I spent a lot of time in the welcome center talking to campers and staff. I spent time with the staff on the porch of their cabin and looked at every aspect of the park in a new light.

In order to effectively reach out and find campers I felt as though I needed to know more about what was going on. The 7% of people with disabilities that had been reported was based on staff observation. Some of the campers that I talked to had hidden disabilities. One woman in particular had an interesting story about how her and her husband used to camp in the backwoods of northern Canada. She had developed a condition that made it difficult to walk and see. They had been coming to the park for several years and cherish every moment. I dubbed them “the happiest campers.“

As I took it all in from a new perspective, I learned a lot more about how I could possibly increase the attendance of people with disabilities. When I first arrived for each visit, I would be very excited to take pictures and really explore. By the evening of the second day I was completely settled into life in the woods. Whenever I am at John Dillon Park I am calm and in tune with nature. It has a healing effect on my mind, body and soul.

After the summer I contacted previous campers to see who would be interested in sharing their stories. In the spring I had big plans to spread the word to people with disabilities. Then COVID-19 happened.

As we considered the possibility that we may not open, we realized that it would be a great opportunity to do a major overhaul. After being open for 12 years, the park needed a lot of maintenance, including replacing the roofs of several lean-tos, cleaning up all of the trails and around each campsite, putting a new floor in the welcome center and many other things that would be difficult to do while being open.

I decided to use this time to learn more about the origin of the park, reach out to campers, and address some accessibility issues.
I am on a mission to see John Dillon Park be maximized to it’s potential. I am taking the time to get to know the board members, the staff, and many regular campers. The stories and pictures that I have received from campers tells a collective story of what John Dillon Park is truly all about.

I communicated with everyone involved and learning more about who will benefit the most, in order to seek out the future John Dillon Park campers. That is my purpose and I am not going to stop.