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Group shot of people in the mountains

Back Up Multi-Activity Course

By Jane Sowerby

The Lake District is one of my favourite places in the UK, and Back Up is one of my favourite charities. So how could combining the two not make me happy? Back Up organise several multi-activity courses each year, working in partnership with the Calvert Trust based in Keswick. These are rehabilitative courses, generally for newly injured people with a spinal cord injury. There are always two group leaders – one able-bodied and one wheelchair user. When they asked me to lead this one I jumped at the chance.

The group stay in purpose built accommodation for the week, in the stunning countryside close to Keswick. There’s even a brand new sensory swimming pool - with different coloured lights and music that can be heard underwater. Not necessarily as medically beneficial for us as for other disabilities (i.e. autism, visual impairment), but enjoyable nonetheless! 

One of the challenges for a group leader is to ensure the group gels, and that each participant benefits from the experience as much as possible. It was a very mixed group, with people from different backgrounds as well as different levels of spinal cord injury. It’s important to prevent anyone from feeling isolated if they’re not particularly confident in social situations. We started the week with a few ice breaking sessions just to make everyone feel relaxed and start getting to know each other. 

For many on the course, this was the first physical activity they’d done since their injury. It’s an action packed week so keeping an eye on people to make sure they’re not too exhausted was important. The Calvert Trust instructors did a great job at organising an exciting schedule. We took part in sailing, canoeing, handcycling, abseiling, archery and climbing to name but a few. 

On the first day, after the previous evening of settling in, we had a trek to the top of Latrigg fell. Quite a few of the wheelchair users found this a daunting prospect. It’s a very tough push up to the summit, over rough terrain. It’s a great way to get the group to bond though. Most of the buddies there to help on the course didn’t have any knowledge of spinal injury or wheelchairs, so this activity meant they could learn how best to assist. Each wheelchair user had different physical abilities, so it was important for them to vocalise how much assistance they required. The incredible view down the valley of Borrowdale from the summit made all the hard work worthwhile. “Lying in my hospital bed, I thought I’d never be able to get to a place like this ever again” was one of the most rewarding statements heard. 

In my opinion, the social side of the course is also extremely important. In the evenings we’d eat a meal, then have a few beers while sitting around chatting or playing pool and table tennis. One of the participants told me he had never been to the pub since his accident, and was determined to organise something with friends after the course.

In-between the Calvert Trust activities, we scheduled in as many wheelchair skills sessions as possible, tailoring some one-to-one sessions as well. Being taught by another wheelchair user who’s ‘been there and done it’ is the best way to learn skills that will help you overcome real life situations. The physical abilities of the participants differed greatly which is why we always have two wheelchair skills trainers – one paraplegic and one tetraplegic. 

One of the highlights for me is camp night, although I’m not sure all other course participants would agree! I do understand that camping is not everyone’s cup of tea, and after a spinal injury the prospect can be quite terrifying. This is exactly why it’s included in the schedule; once people have taken part in camp night they go away feeling that they can achieve almost anything. We were very lucky with the weather - the Calvert instructors said it always rained on camp night, but we were treated to a clear night sky for stargazing. 

The feedback at the end of the week was heartwarming, and the transformation in some of the participants’ attitudes and confidence was clearly visible. For some, it was just being introduced to a new activity they’d like to pursue, whereas for others it had changed their whole outlook on life. Being taken completely out of your comfort zone may not always feel great at the time, but looking back on what you’ve achieved opens your eyes to all kinds of possibilities.