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  • Tom Hanlon

Bring on the Game Changers!

Updated: Apr 16


A game changer is a newly introduced element or factor that changes an existing situation or activity in a significant way.

-Merriam Webster Dictionary

Nearly all the best things that came to me in life have been unexpected, unplanned by me.

-Carl Sandburg

I think Uncle Bob had a learning disability. We never talked about it when we were kids. We talked about him though. He made life interesting. He would take us fishing in remote spots and he would treat us to the best soft ice cream. He drove a Plymouth Valiant, a car he had repainted red, white and blue using a paint brush. We knew he helped out at the post office where he mowed the grass and planted beautiful geraniums. We knew he lived with my grandparents when his two brothers had long left home for universities and careers. We loved the photos he took of his car trips through the Adirondacks at the height of fall colors. He was a big part of our lives. His world was different than our world. When we entered into his world, we experienced the unexpected. He was a game changer for us.


I vividly remember one day when Uncle Bob took us on a trout fishing adventure in the rural farmland not far from our home. We spent the day making our way up backwoods creeks, searching for trout. The only fish we saw were little suckers. At the day’s end Uncle Bob insisted on one last try as we made our way back to town. The old Erie Canal did not seem like a likely fishing destination. The water was stagnant brown and coated with algae in spots. I plunked my wormed hook into the water and suddenly there was a tug on my line followed by a flash. I pulled my line in only to find an empty hook dangling. My brother, immediately cast his line in the direction of the flash and the line went taught. He reeled in and hauled out the unexpected…. a good sized rainbow trout!


I am the Executive Director of River’s Way. Having a background in teaching and camping, I had never worked with people with differing abilities before taking this position. I set about this project taking a page from Wilderness Inquiry, an outdoor adventure non- profit with headquarters in Minneapolis, the city where we lived prior to moving to Bristol. Wilderness Inquiry specialized in wilderness programs that were inclusive, where a small group of participants with and without disabilities went on trips in areas like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. I was impressed by the program and thought we could duplicate aspects of it in East Tennessee where I was headed. With the help of some highly talented outdoor staff, we established River’s Way and went on to do outdoor adventure programming with people of all abilities. I had much to learn.


As time went by, we saw that the students with differing abilities that we worked with during River’s Way programs were often times at a loss after high school. The same person who conquered the high ropes course at River’s Way was now sitting on his couch at home. This was a common story and it prompted us to look at establishing community based programs that would offer opportunities for people with differing abilities through their school years and beyond.


We eventually discontinued the outdoor programs, sold our camp property and focused all of our efforts on these community based programs. We partnered with like minded organizations like the YMCA of Bristol, the Bristol Public Library, local schools, Theatre Bristol and Central Christian Church. We ran gardening programs, fitness programs, workforce programs, café programs and summer camps. We ended up working with thousands of people of all abilities and in the midst of it all, I came to realize that the unexpected had occurred. I was a different person.


I return to Uncle Bob. Like so many of our participants, he was a game changer. He invited us to see the world differently and we came to appreciate those unexpected, quirky moments that took place when he was around. Without realizing it, he laid the foundation for my later experience with River’s Way. For the most part, the people with differing abilities that we work with are never going to be seen as being successful in the eyes of the world. They are game changers though. They are often able take us out of the control arenas, the carefully planned activities and the achievements and events that the world prizes. They take us to unexpected places where we share a laugh or a helping hand or a smile, where nothing goes as planned, where we experience a level of tenacity and determination that catches us by surprise, where a chance meeting or interaction or eccentricity brings us to a best moment of the day.

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River's Way 

1227 Volunteer Pkwy Bristol, TN 37620

Matt@riversway.org                         Tom@riversway.org 

(423)-715-0085                                   (423)-612-1242