Just north of the Columbia River and surrounded by farmland and orchards, Bing Canyon, near Plymouth, Washington, is a place similar in terrain to parts of Wyoming's Mormon Trail. Sagebrush, canyons, prairie and a dusty trail greet handcart companies who travel up to 20 miles on a trail circling a grassy base camp known as Zion.
Members of the Eugene Oregon Santa Clara Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently trekked with about 200 people, including six special needs youths.
When leaders from the Santa Clara Stake began planning the stake's second trek, they wanted to include all youths, regardless of ability. Trek chairwoman Connie Hendrickson, who helped plan the stake's first trek four years earlier, said that from the beginning she had a "strong, abiding conviction that all youths from our stake should be enabled to come on trek. I believe that came from Heavenly Father."
With that fortitude and similar feelings from other trek committee members, preparations began.
In addition to attending mutual in their home wards of the LDS Church, special needs youths in the Santa Clara Stake have their own mutual program. Led by Scott and Donna Newman, who are called as Young Men and Young Women presidents, the youths are called trailblazers. Each trailblazer is assigned a buddy, usually a Laurel or priest from the stake, to attend the midweek youth activities with them. They meet once a week and enjoy activities just like any other mutual group.
Terri Johnson, a mother of five whose youngest daughter, 13-year-old Katie, has Down syndrome, was called as the special needs chairwoman on the trek committee. Her responsibilities included pairing trailblazers with families, assigning youth buddies, coordinating respite care along the trail and at base camp, and supervising extra adults assigned to aid trailblazers as needed. Johnson noted that in the planning sessions the adults really wanted the trek to be a "peer-led experience, peers helping peers."
"One of the biggest issues was respite care on the trail," Johnson said. "We knew that extended walking would be difficult for many of them and it would be necessary to provide a ride when they needed one as well as checkpoints where they could be picked up and brought back to base camp for larger rest periods."
The solution to taking breaks along the trail came in the form of two specially made chairs, which were crafted by a member of the stake. The chairs hold one person and are pushed and pulled like a handcart. Adults assigned to help along the trail started each day pulling the chairs along the trail, and as trailblazers became tired, two-way radios were used to bring a chair to the appropriate place.
Then youths were asked to volunteer to push and pull the chairs. If help was needed on the handcart where the youths stepped out, the adult shadows would step in. Not once was a call to help not answered. In fact, some youths lamented they never got a chance to help.
A lot of thought and prayer went into assigning trailblazers to families. Then, ma's and pa's were given instructions about the care and needs of the youths, and the trailblazers' youth buddies from mutual were assigned to the same family. The buddy's role was to help the trailblazer adapt and to help the other members of the family interact with and aid the trailblazer.
"I kind of forgot about the trailblazers' so-called disabilities," said Anna Jensen, a Laurel who worked with Chelsea Newman, a 26 year-old trailblazer. "To see her overcome so many obstacles in just a few days was amazing. She and the other trailblazers are my heroes."
Chelsea's mom, Donna Newman, stayed at base camp with her husband, Scott, and other adults to help trailblazers who needed rest. When asked about her daughter's experience, Donna Newman commented that trek "was so significant in Chelsea's life that she chose repeatedly to return to the trail even when she was in pain. I will forever be grateful for the experience of love and acceptance my daughter felt those days on trek. She was blessed by a loving ma and pa who let her feel 'normal' and a part of the family."
Newman also notes that inclusion is crucial for these youths. "By the time special needs youths reach their teenage years, they are used to 'being on the outside looking in.' People in the church are kind to them, but their disabilities often keep them distanced from their peers. The loneliness is brutal. At trek, I watched as they were embraced and valued."
As the trekkers look back on their experience, the trailblazers will be an important part of their memories. Some will remember Katie, who is obsessed with Disney princesses. She named her trek sisters after her favorite princesses and played make-believe with them along the trail.
"It was really awesome seeing Katie walk into Zion on her own," said 15-year-old Elizabeth Knope. "It really brought home the mentality that no one is left behind."
Amy M. Peterson, a former high school English teacher, currently lives in Oregon with her husband and four children. She spends her days writing, reading, exercising and trying to get her family to eat more vegetables.