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Anita O'Brien

Rochester Accessible Adventures

On a Friday at Fuego

Interview No. 87

1 - Anita1 - Anita

Where are you originally from?

I grew up in Georgia and have been living in Rochester since 2000. I was living in Cape Cod before I moved here but I knew that was temporary. During my time there, I had developed some friendships with tourists from Rochester, and a friend took me up for a visit. I knew I wanted to live near water or by mountains, because affinity to nature is kind of my thing. We were driving up Lakeshore Blvd. and I saw the lake and realized you can’t see the other side, and I thought, “Huh, that’s kind of like an ocean. I could make this work.” I live just a few houses up from the lake now and I haven’t found a reason to leave!

What is your favorite part of living in Rochester?

Even if I choose not to experiment, there’s so much to do. From festivals to eating out, there are so many different options. I also love the outdoor feel here, with the lake and all of our parks. Even within the city, there’s so much going on. Sometimes I feel like I’m not taking advantage of it all, but I love that I have the choice to participate in any of it at any time.

Do you have any favorite/secret Rochester spots?

What’s the most unique or interesting event you’ve attended in Rochester?

Probably Fringe Festival—there are always lots of interesting things going on all in one night. It’s fun to just walk around and take it all in. I also enjoy Jazz Fest and the Corn Hill Festival; it’s fun seeing people engaged in our community.

Do you have a favorite charity/nonprofit you like to support?

Well, Rochester Accessible Adventures is definitely my highlight right now. We collaborate with many other nonprofits too, so there’s a nice sense of community. I always try to make sure others know about the great nonprofits in our area and about volunteering opportunities as well.

If you had $100 and 2 hours to kill, how would you spend the money/time?

I’m not sure if I would spend it all! I’d stop for coffee somewhere, then go outside and hike. I love the trails at Durand Eastman, and hiking at Mendon Ponds is always a beautiful thing. Walking the beach at Lake Ontario is great, or visiting spots slightly further away, like Letchworth, or any of the parks and trails in Ithaca.

What is your personal coping mechanism for cold/gray weather?

I love to go sledding if there’s snow! It always makes me happy. I’m a seasonal creature. For me, the depth of cold is fine, but it’s the length of the season that can be challenging, especially when it starts to feel like it’s taking too long to get to spring.

What is your favorite Rochester memory?

My first drive into Rochester, as we drove up by the lake. It was very formative in my decision to stay. I remember the feeling of, “I could make this move.” The memories right after stand out too—meeting friends and getting introduced to all that Rochester has to offer.

What makes Rochester unique?

We have these small communities within the larger community, and I think that’s a unique aspect of Rochester. We have these self-sustainable neighborhoods like Park Ave, Corn Hill, etc. and I think it’s really unusual. I also appreciate the partnerships within the community and the way older generations embrace collaborating with young people.

What do you think could be improved?

My focus is on accessibility, so I would like to see more work done in that area. Specifically, I’d like to see more dialogue and a move to include more people, more voices at the table.

Tell me a little bit about your background and your work with Rochester Accessible Adventures.

My background is in therapeutic recreation, so I’m always asking myself, ‘How can I get people active?’ Everyone wants to be active with friends and family, but it’s not always easy for people with disabilities, and we need systemic change. What I’m doing with Rochester Accessible Adventures (RAA) is partnering with local businesses to train them to operate inclusively and thus change access. The Erie Canal Boat Company was my first partner and it just kind of happened organically.

We have worked together on everything from the equipment to transfer someone from their wheelchair, into a kayak, and back into their chair again, to improving language on their website to highlight that they’re accessible.

Another local business we’re working with is called PickledPower—we are starting to improve their accessibility by training their staff on disability culture and awareness.

Overall, the plan is to expand the availability of our inclusion specialists along the Erie Canalway Corridor, from Buffalo to Albany. It’s a very scalable model. Basically, we’re aiming to help business do what they do more inclusively.

What’s been the best part about running RAA so far?

There are so many stories I could share.

One man who was recovering from a stroke told me that 60% of his thoughts were, “What am I going to do?” After I talked to him about all the accessible options out there, he told me, “Now I know I have options.”

There was a two year old who was obsessed with basketball, but his parents didn’t think he’d ever be able to play based on the disabilities he had. He came out to a Rochester Wheels event with his family and sat under a hoop throwing a ball for hours. Now his family knows there’s a pathway to sport for him.

On another occasion, we helped a mother in a wheelchair play pickleball with her daughter. She came up to me afterwards and said, “I don’t have to be the coffee break anymore.” Her friends and family always took her out for coffee because it didn’t seem like she could participate in any more active outings with them. Now she tells them, “You’re going kayaking with me—or biking, or to play pickleball.”

All of these stories and comments are astounding, but unsolicited! It cuts people to the core to be put on the sidelines because of a disability. We’re helping people access activities they enjoy participating in with their loved ones.

Tell me a little bit about your upcoming event.

On June 10th and 11th from 10am-2pm, we’re holding an Adaptive Paddling and Cycling Center Extravaganza! People can bring their whole family. We’ll be offering assessments, talking them through how to use the equipment, and just generally helping them get their confidence trying out some of these activities. There will also be adaptive yoga and a massage therapist on site. It’s a great event and it’s free! It’ll be taking place at the Erie Canal Boat Company in Fairport.

If our readers like the sound of what you’re doing with RAA, how can they get involved?

We do have a volunteer program where individuals can sign up to be a canal or community pal or to help with events. If you’re a kayaker, you can sign up to be a canal pal, where individuals with disabilities can book you in advance as a friend to go paddling with. There are also sponsorship opportunities at the individual and corporate level. Also, if you have skillsets that could help us, we would be happy to get you involved! If you are a passionate social media guru or love building websites, we could use your help.

Follow us on Facebook and Instagram to learn more, and contact me via the RAA website if you’re interested in volunteering!

Anita O'Brien is the Executive Director of Rochester Accessible Adventures, an organization dedicated to creating a revolution in inclusion. For more of Anita's perspective, check out our Instagram.