“I’m an athlete,” says Diane Cunningham, 32, of San Jose, before going on to recite a list of activities that would make most of us tired just hearing it: swimming, basketball, soccer, floor hockey, powerlifting, snowshoeing, softball, and bowling.
She’s competed in the Special Olympics World Games. To relax, she rides horses, visits the climbing gym, or goes out on the Monterey Bay in an outrigger canoe—sometimes with her service dog, a miniature Australian shepherd.
All this, despite having lifelong challenges with a learning disorder, ADD and severe asthma.
Cunningham credits Shared Adventures—a nonprofit that creates recreation and social activities for people with disabilities—with helping her to reach many of these achievements. Since 1992, the organization has provided wings to hundreds of people in Santa Cruz County. It’s even taken people like Cunningham for flights on small planes out of Moffett Field.
Shared Adventures was started by Foster Andersen, 56, who broke his back in a motorcycle accident when he was 17. Soon after, he was introduced to “sit-skiing” in the mountains of his native New York. “There were all these people with special needs going up in the chair and coming back down,” he says. “Seeing that made a world of difference in my life. It was an adrenaline rush. People were doing something I never thought was possible, using adaptive equipment—people with open hearts and open minds making a difference in someone’s life, like mine.”
Soon Andersen had a thought: “If they can make that kind of difference in my life—how can I bring that same experience to others?”
After moving to Santa Cruz, Andersen took up surfing with the help of adaptive equipment that involved him sitting in a special chair on his board. Then, on July 17—the anniversary of his accident—he threw a beach party, like any self-respecting Santa Cruz resident would.
“I got a bunch of pallets and built a platform near the Dream Inn so people could access the sand in beach wheelchairs,” he recalls. “We had music, surfing, and kayaking, and watched the sun go down. It was a blast.” Shared Adventures was born. And the annual party, known as Day On the Beach, has now celebrated its 25th year.
Anderson says he found in Santa Cruz an environment and a culture ideally suited to his purpose of creating recreational opportunities for everyone. “Because it’s such diverse terrain and topography—from the redwoods to the ocean—we do a little of everything,” says Andersen. This includes camping, rock climbing at Pacific Edge, swimming, “adaptive yoga,” and camping.
But Shared Adventures isn’t just for shredders and athletes. Participants also get together for gardening, playing bingo, even just attending movie nights. The group hosts activities almost every day of the week, year-round, benefiting hundreds of people.
Building for Generations, the other organization in this category for the 2017 Santa Cruz Gives drive, creates a similar sense of liberation in people with special needs. Since 2005, the nonprofit has provided musical experiences to local children with physical challenges, in a group setting. Its “Big Jam” is a monthly percussion circle open to teens and adults with developmental disabilities or brain injuries.
“Music is a whole brain activity,” says Cory Ybarra, a lifetime Santa Cruz resident who founded the organization with Lizz Hodgin. Both have children with Down Syndrome. “Primarily, we work with percussion, clapping or using a shaker or conga to keep the rhythm,” says Ybarra. A trained music teacher goes to six-eight classrooms per week.
Every nonprofit participating in this year’s Santa Cruz Gives has specified a project for which it’s raising money, and Building for Generations’ will fund its monthly percussion jam.
Ybarra says she sees the healing power of music every day. “One special education teacher had a child that couldn’t spell his name because it had too many letters to remember,” Ybarra says. “She put the letters to music, and sang the name, and he could remember it. We’ve had children who are non-verbal who start to make pre-speech during the singing portion of our program.”
She recently heard from another teacher about a severely disabled student who only smiles one day a week, and that’s when he has a shaker into his hands during music class.
Ybarra says that donations will help serve more special needs children in the county. She also wants to broaden the program to reach adults, and has conducted several such classes with Raul Rikow Jr., the son of the late, famed drummer for the band Santana.
“Operating funds are a big deal for us,” says Ybarra. “I’m 65, and I’ve put a lot into it. I want to be sure it keeps going!”
To donate to any of the 33 nonprofits participating in Santa Cruz Gives, visit santacruzgives.org through Sunday, Dec. 31.