His Arm Doesn’t Matter

There are times in leading adventure education activities when you are suddenly hit with the weightiness of what was just accomplished. Yesterday was one of those days. Interestingly, it did not occur during the two hours that the high schoolers scrambled up the newly constructed third side of the climbing tower, but an hour later.

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Simon leaps to reach a hold above the gap

With the intense afternoon sun at 8,500 feet beating down on belayer and climber alike, all faces turned skyward to witness a feat not at all normal for our facility. A new resident at the boys’ home, Samuel, was nearing the top of the tower. It was his first time climbing, and he was overwhelmed by the ropes, harness, and all the people shouting instructions and encouragement at him. It was a routine event for Fundacion Aventura, one in which it is even possible to become bored if you focus on the activity, repeated hundreds of times, rather than the individual.

But Samuel is different. Just minutes before, the other boys in his dorm had shouted “he can’t do it,” partly out of strategic positioning to get the next available harness, and partly in a genuine belief that Samuel for some reason would not be able to complete this task. His barrier was insurmountable. His was not only psychological, it was physical. Samuel is missing one hand below the elbow.

In a culture where people with disabilities are frequently hidden from the public, live off a measly government pension, or are relegated to begging on the street, most people are not used to thinking that a person with any kind of disability is able to accomplish almost anything. Julio has proved them wrong time and time again by traversing exposed rock-faces, jumping across creeks, and carrying a full pack for miles, despite his autism. Now it was Samuel’s turn to show the rest what he is capable of.

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Rodrigo pulls against the vertical crevice to counter his foot pushing against the hold

Naturally, rock climbing is a lot easier with both hands, both feet, nimbleness and a lot of upper body strength. Even the name of the “holds” on the tower implies that you should have hands to grip them. But that didn’t stop Samuel from putting on a harness, clipping into the rope, and picking his way up the wall. He faced the normal, genuine fear that he would fall at more than one point, but he overcame this one step at a time, hooking his elbow around the silicon rocks and hauling himself up the tower. If this were a Disney movie, his reaching the top would have been met by an astonished hush or a cheesy chorus of emotional cheers. Thankfully, the real-life reaction was much more practical and realistic.

“Great job, Samuel! Now hurry back down, it’s my turn.”

Most people in life are not waiting to cheer our every move, and celebrate our every victory. And honestly, it is more productive and healthier for the boys to skip over the momentous way that Samuel rejected letting others define his abilities for him. They took it in stride, incorporating this new evidence-based truth into their little paradigms. Samuel can do what he sets his mind to. His arm doesn’t matter.

And that’s the point. Just like that, Samuel became “one of the guys”, no longer marked by the fact that he has only one full arm. No longer separated from the group by a physical characteristic he has no control over. “All” that Samuel did was climb a tower. But what he accomplished was to establish a foothold in the dorm, gain belonging, and teach an important lesson to the group. All because he accepted the challenge.

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Jhasmani stretches to reach a hold

We had a slew of other winners yesterday. Andres is pretty overweight, and that fact definitely hampered his ability to get up the wall, but he did it too, trusting the ropes, carabiners and Wilfredo to not let him fall. Sebastian conquered the harder side of the tower after a series of five attempts, refusing to give up. Jilmar made it halfway up the same side, frustrated that Sebastian could beat him, but achieving much more than he really thought possible. Just months ago, his fear of heights overpowered him, freezing him near the top on the easy side.

The high schoolers embraced the challenge of the third wall with abandon, which we built to incorporate a gap of more than a yard, with a slight overhang. Reaching the gap, they stretched to reach the holds on the overhang, leaping to gain purchase, and twisting their bodies like contortionists to scramble past the section with no holds or even surface area to brace against. Each one arrived at the top, exhausted, sweating profusely, and exhibiting a huge smile. After two weeks of maintenance, it was a blessing to see the tower built five years ago continuing to challenge, stretch and grow the boys at the BLC.

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When you’re as buff as Fabricio, you can simply pull yourself up, no legs necessary.

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