Making the Outdoors Inclusive

Fund helps individuals with disabilities access and enjoy natural spaces

For parents, there are few things more terrifying than an unexpected call or knock on the door from police or government officials. For Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF) donors Ross and Eleanor Wein, the world stopped when, on Nov. 23, 1998, they received a call from the Canadian embassy in Ottawa. Their son, Daniel, had been involved in a near-fatal motorcycle accident in Bogotá, Colombia.

The prognosis was poor.

“I was on the plane the next morning and got to see him that night,” says Ross. “What I saw wasn’t pretty. Danny was all full of tubes and wires. We didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Daniel, a budding young environmental biologist and recent university graduate, had embarked on a road trip with two good friends just two months before the accident. Travelling down the West Coast of the United States, through Mexico and into Central and South America, the young men had enjoyed the trip of a lifetime. But a collision with a flatbed truck brought a swift end to Daniel’s ride.

For the Wein family, it was the beginning of a new journey, one fraught with hospital visits, sleepless nights and unexpected challenges. Daniel survived the accident, but injuries to his lower brain stem left him with one side paralyzed, unable to balance or speak clearly. This means Daniel will require near round-the-clock care for the rest of his life. The next several months were long and arduous as Daniel moved from the hospital to a brain injury rehabilitation program in Ponoka. As Daniel began to make progress through speech and physiotherapy treatments, Ross and Eleanor, along with their daughter Laurie, worked to encourage his recovery by bringing Daniel nature magazines and photos — reminders of what he loved. Eventually, the family would bring him on outings to Elk Island National Park or Beaverhill Lake, giving him the chance to enjoy nature once again. Ross and Eleanor became well-versed in determining whether a space would be fully accessible for their outings with Daniel. Unfortunately, they found many challenges when staying in traditional hotels or visiting natural parks.

So they set out to create something new.

“We wanted to have a place where guys like Daniel, in wheelchairs and with other issues, could get out into nature because we knew what that meant to him,” says Ross. “So in 2006 when I retired, I said, ‘Well, we need something like that. And we need to make it so that people and their families can get out to it.’”

So in 2007, after many hard-fought years of recovery for Daniel, the Weins founded the Alberta Abilities Lodges Society, an organization dedicated to making outdoor experiences accessible to all Albertans. Their first priority with the society was to bridge the gap that limited so many Albertans — including Daniel — with physical and cognitive disabilities: a lack of transportation options to and from parks and natural areas.

Natural areas are not often served by transit networks, and for those who are unable to drive or who don’t own a vehicle, they can be virtually impossible to access. To address this, the Weins established the Wein Family Disabilities Transportation Fund with ECF. The fund provides financial support for those living with a disability, allowing their families and their caregivers to enjoy respite in a natural setting. It is disbursed annually via the Alberta Abilities Lodges Society to those in financial need.

“We knew it was important to also support caregivers through this fund, because everyone can benefit from being out in nature,” says Eleanor, adding that an outdoor getaway can offer caregivers a welcome respite from their duties. “Ross and I don’t travel much, ourselves. We’ve managed a couple of short trips, but if we want to travel, it’s a huge challenge for us to find 24-hour help for Danny. When we come back, the caregivers are always exhausted, so we know how important it is to offer everyone the chance to get away for a break.”

“Families with disabled people generally aren’t going to have much money because they’re saving what they can for the future and they’ve got so many expenses right now. Everything from equipment to caregiving, it all costs money, so it can be hard to manage something like a weekend trip,” says Ross. “Through this fund, we’re trying to provide financial travel support in perpetuity for disabled people and their support groups.”

Although the fund is now 12 years old, Ross and Eleanor are only getting started with their work. The couple are well into their retirement, yet they show no signs of slowing down on their mission to make nature accessible to all Albertans.

“The best place and best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, right?” says Ross, “And the second-best is today. We took that approach with the endowment fund. We’re always hoping to see it grow and to see our work with the society grow to help more families.”