• Tom Hanlon

Walking is accessible. Walking builds community. Walking is good for you!

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

Yesterday evening, River’s Way held one of our group walks at the Virginia High School track. We had a diverse group of people come together with a common goal of walking laps. Owen, our executive director’s four year old grandson, led the way on several of our laps. I walked with Justin Hale, who uses a wheelchair, and we had a friendly competition with another group member and wheelchair user, Jared Hagerstrom. Justin nicknamed Jared “Earnhart” as he playfully cut us off as we went around corners and enjoyed many laughs in the process.

Justin and Matt after our group walk

Tom Hanlon, our executive director, walked with Jaimie, another young lady involved in our programs. We overheard Tom and Jaimie laughing and having an interesting conversation on the topic of child birth since one of our staff members had announced she was going to have a baby. I observed family members and friends involved with River’s Way meeting one another and having good conversations on a variety of subjects. We also met a young man who was a recent graduate of Virginia High School who joined in with our group and had many kind words about how inspiring it was to be around our group. We ended up getting him connected with our group through MapMyWalk and hope to see him more regularly on our group walks.

This group of people coming together from different walks of life reminded me of the similarities between bouldering and walking. Bouldering is a form of rock climbing that I have been passionate about for almost 10 years now. It is my favorite activity and hobby outside of work. One thing I have really enjoyed about bouldering is the community of different climbers who come together from all over the country to support each other in our pursuit of individual climbing goals and in our commitment to ensuring climbing access for future generations. Being in an outdoor setting with a group that has a common goal and that is supportive, encouraging, and motivating is a great experience, an experience that is common to both bouldering and walking.

Our walking group at the Virginia High School track

The downside to bouldering and to the many other outdoor recreation activities that River’s Way focused on in years past, such as rafting and the high ropes course, is that these activities require a great amount of time, dedication, gear, and commitment of resources. Unlike walking, many outdoor adventure activities are not easily accessible to people of all abilities and ability levels. While it is certainly possible to adapt almost any outdoor activity for people of differing abilities, and I know first hand these experiences can be extremely rewarding and life changing, they are typically "one-and-done" experiences given the amount of time and resources that are involved in leading these programs. In contrast to walking, it isn’t realistic for many people to do these activities on a regular basis.

Jared, Justin, and Tom at our group walk

I am a graduate of East Tennessee State University with a Sport and Leisure Management degree and a concentration in Parks and Recreation Management. Outdoor recreation is near and dear to my heart. I understand the sacrifice and commitment that many outdoor recreation activities require, and I am fortunate to have the ability and resources to make those sacrifices and participate in many of these activities. They have shaped my life and helped me to become the person I am today. Still, after working with River’s Way for nearly 10 years and having learned so many things about the people of differing abilities involved in our programs, I see that walking is one of the best outdoor recreation activities available for the population we serve. It has the power to transform their lives. I have personally witnessed this with the many people in our programs who have committed to walking on a regular basis. I have witnessed the transformation of their bodies. I have seen them making connections with students in schools through our school-based walking programs. I have witnessed them inspire students to do their best and set big goals for themselves. I have witnessed students viewing young adults with differing abilities as leaders instead of people who need help. It has been truly inspiring!

The wonderful thing about walking is that it is so accessible and easy to do. Anyone can walk. You can walk anywhere. The people you encounter when you walk are part of your community. Walking encourages conversation and social connections. The list of benefits goes on and on. There is plenty of easily available research that supports walking as one of the best activities you can do to increase your physical health, your mental health, encourage social interaction, and strengthen bonds in your own community.

Looking to the future, I wonder about the potential of this walking journey we have embarked on and what it might lead to in our community. I think about the possibility of our group of individuals with differing abilities inspiring and encouraging others to start walking together. I think about all the amazing health benefits that walking provides. Could our little walking group change some of the unsavory statistics our region has regarding physical inactivity? What positive outcomes are possible when diverse members of the same community walk with each other and have meaningful conversations? Instead of people with differing abilities graduating from high school and falling into a life of social isolation and inactivity, what would happen if these young adults were actively involved in our community and were given the opportunity to inspire others to make positive changes in their lives?

No one can predict the future, but I know I get excited when I think about the potential good these young adults can do in our community when they are given the opportunity to inspire others. They certainly inspire me, and I feel very fortunate that I get the opportunity to work with them every day!


You can join our virtual walking group and walk on your own time. Click the link to find out how you can join:

Written by Matt Kyle - Program Director

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