Earlier this month we hosted our 10th No Barriers Summit in New York City. We’d always hosted our Summits in the mountains, but in an effort to bring the message to more people and build the movement, we decided to reach as an organization and debut it in the Big Apple, one of the biggest stages on Earth. Thankfully, that scary reach was rewarded by almost 2,000 attendees showing up from around the world, from Norway to India to Japan, and many of them first-timers. One of the great honors of my life has been that so many have trusted the authenticity of our movement enough to show up totally alone, with an open heart, and poised for growth and change. Thank you for believing in us.
The first day we took over the Intrepid, an aircraft carrier from WWII, now a huge Sea, Air & Space Museum, for our opening ceremony and a range of interactive workshops.
Sam Schmidt, a former renowned Indy Race Car Driver, took the stage to kick off the day. He spoke about his accident on the track that left him a quadriplegic and dashed his hopes of driving again. It was a career ending injury, and he fell into depression. But a few years later he teamed up with the folks at ARROW Electronics who were in the process of developing a Corvette Stingray that could be driven using just slight movements of the head. Together with Sam, they worked to improve the aptly named SAM Car (semi-autonomous motorcar) and he’s taken it to new heights. He’s driven at an outrageous speed of 192 mph on the track, and he’s throttled up Pike’s Peak to 14,114 ft. Sam’s story speaks to how far we can climb when we combine innovation with the human spirit.
After more amazing speakers and performers, we were then blown away by rapper, actor, and speaker, Ice-T. Ice has had a rough life and doesn’t mince words. He gave a talk straight from the heart (the only way he does it) and reminded everyone that mindset is most importantly a matter of perspective. “There is always someone out there who has it worse than you,” he said bluntly. “You gotta struggle in the darkness so you always have a reference point to f***ed up.”
What I didn’t realize was I was about to have my own No Barriers moment.
Whitney Way Thore, star of TLC’s My Big Fat Fabulous Life, was leading a whole swarm of people in a dance lesson. Whitney has lived her life with PCOS (poly-cystic ovarian syndrome) that caused her to become insulin resistant and to gain weight at a rapid pace. Instead of submitting and existing on the sidelines, she began the No Body Shame movement (No BS), shattering people’s expectations of what a “good dancer” should look like.
I stood nearby listening to the music and laughter and was ready to move on before I was called out!! From the stage, Whitney addressed me directly and said I better join. Normally I would have slunk off but I’m the co-founder of No Barriers – what would that look like?
Now, people might think I’ve done some crazy adventures in my life, but mountains and whitewater don’t compare to twerking in public. I was miles out of my element but also surrounded by folks in wheelchairs, amputees, other blind people, kids, and Veterans. So I let go of myself and made a decision to embrace the moment. While Whitney danced along with us from the stage, she shouted encouragement in between breaths, teaching us all sorts of new moves. By the end, we put it all together for a full song replete with moves like “dishwater hands,” and “earthquake hips.”
After a day of adaptive yoga, painting, fencing, boxing, and Mark Wellman’s ubiquitous climbing wall, one last mind-blowing performance was in store for us; the adaptive dance team, Infinite Flow, joined up with the famed Evan Ruggiero, “the Peg Leg dancer,” who uses his prosthetic peg to tap out incredibly athletic and elaborate moves.
As it all wrapped up, everyone broke off to start gathering points around the city for a 24- hour scavenger hunt called The Questival. Dozens of teams competed in No Barriers themed challenges like “Take a 15 second video of you making a speech to total strangers about what No Barriers means to you, and by the way, it has to be on an escalator or in an elevator.”
The activities, the speakers, and the performers are all an integral part of a Summit experience but to me it’s the people I meet who make the Summit unique: folks like Reach scholarship winner Caitlin Conner, who at only 28 years old has experienced incredible loss. In 5 years she lost her brother, mom, step dad, mother-in-law and after a motorcycle accident she lost part of her leg in a below the knee amputation. Despite all of this, or maybe because of it, Caitlin has become a renowned athlete who boxes and completes triathlons. After the Summit she wrote, “They don’t tell you about how much the event truly has the ability to change you. I saw people cry tears of joy, I saw them break down barriers that they placed on themselves in their lifetime, but more importantly I saw them break down the barriers others have placed on them.”
Karl Nguyen, from Baltimore, showed up in NYC for his first Summit, having heard about the opportunity from a friend. Karl was born with O.I., a brittle bone disease requiring him to use a power chair, but he wasn’t going to let the Summit pass him by. He rock climbed for the first time, fenced (he was undefeated!), and did yoga on the deck of the intrepid, with the NYC skyline in the background.
Another new face was US Army Lt. Col. James Bishop, who I met randomly. James happened to be sitting across the table from me at a meal where he introduced himself and told me some of his background. After his deployment, James came home with post-traumatic stress. It was all exacerbated by 4 lower back disc ruptures that required spinal fusion. However, James is now using his experience to elevate other vets. After work, he can be found volunteering to teach fellow vets resume and interview skills. He also volunteers building homes through Habitat for Humanity and leads veteran expeditions for No Barriers. In fact, James told me excitedly that he was leaving in a couple weeks to lead a No Barriers Grand Canyon wilderness expedition, sponsored by Raytheon!
And then we have our faithful supporters like Ron McGinty who recruits and sponsors dozens of foster kids to attend the summit as well as youth expeditions in wild places around the country. Heather Stone is another believer who brought 10 girls from the Boys and Girls Club of Collier County in Florida.
The Summit wrapped up with our No Barriers LIVE event in Central Park where performers and speakers took the stage to show No Barriers in action. Deaf Jazz musician Mandy Harvey sang, Raegan Sealy performed a rap she wrote specifically for No Barriers, Ice-T came back to drop more inspiration, deaf DJ Robbie Wilde spun, and Nick Demeris, a renowned artist gave us a crazy improvised beatbox performance, and more. The night closed with a bang when Judah and the Lion took the stage putting on an epic show, with an unbelievable set.
There was uncertainty about having our Summit in a big city. We had grown comfortable with the format of running our summits in the mountains. Navigating the culture of the concrete jungle was intimidating and complex. But, we learned an important lesson: No Barriers is not about “place.” No Barriers exists in our people and their stories. It’s a powerful belief that what’s inside us can transcend all barriers. And it is ultimately our community who will spread this movement around the world. I’m biased of course, but I think the world needs a little more No Barriers.
As always, events like this take a rope team. I first want to acknowledge Tom Sullivan, No Barriers Board Member and Chairman of one of our largest corporate sponsors, Cabinets to Go; Tom was the one with the vision and foresight to host in NYC.
In addition to Cabinets To Go, a huge thanks to all of our sponsors: Coors Light, Wells Fargo, Gracious Home New York, Prudential, Philips, ARROW Electronics, MASCO, Aerotek, Accessible Dispatch, and Northwell Health.
*And a huge shout-out to the incredible staff and volunteers at No Barriers who pour their hearts into bringing this event to fruition each year.
Mark your calendar for our next No Barriers Summit in Squaw Valley on Lake Tahoe June 13th-16th in 2019.
Cover Image Photo Credit: Christopher Lee / No Barriers