For over three decades, Mary Sue (Anter) Tanis the founder of Youth Challenge, who was mentored by Paul Leimkuehler, has been on a mission to help improve the health and quality of life for children with physical disabilities by providing opportunities for them to have fun through physical and social activity.
Why did you decide to start Youth Challenge?
In 1976, upon returning from University of Colorado, as a recent graduate and a winter of teaching adaptive ski teaching in Vermont, I figured out that I wanted to work outdoors and with children. This was not the norm. Recreation Therapy as a field was just evolving. A 9 to 5 job was not acceptable.
That summer, along with helping hands from neighborhood teens, we held our first volunteer training on Valley Forge Drive – in my parent’s basement. This was right down the street from Mr. Leimkeuhler’s home. I did outreach and found 12 children having CP, Spina Bifida, Muscular Dystrophy and the future slowly unfolded out of this volunteer venture. In 1983 I asked Paul’s input regarding incorporation to do this full time and he said, “Sue, you have a tiger by the tail!” and encouraged me to incubate this mission as a non-profit organization. His donation was our first as we did incorporate that January. This gift paid for legal papers. Our mission has shifted slightly, but core services, values mission remain the same.
How was Paul Leimkuehler involved with Youth Challenge?
Paul took time for me, a 22 year old outdoor girl with an idea. He belonged to a neighborhood organization with my father. Both were World War II veterans raising big families, both were running companies that they helped to create. Both took time to listen to young people’s dreams and ideas. They encouraged learning, experimenting and applying the golden rule.
After 7 summers of voluntarily running various children’s programs, we began horseback riding in the fall. We skied in the winter as equipment would allow. I met Mr. Leimkuehler and asked his thoughts about incorporating as a sports provider to these young people locally. I prepared a timeline on blueprint paper. I gave his some names and guestimates of dollars needed. With his encouragement we formed a small governing Board of Trustees and incorporated on Super Bowl Sunday – January 23, 1983
How did he serve as an inspiration to you?
He mentored me throughout our formative years. His enthusiasm and example were tempered with logistics of dealing with public perceptions of the ’80’s regarding the disabled. This was before the American’s with Disabilities Act. Equipment was primitive and the disabled were not included.
An important legacy might be that we take time to mentor a young person. And much like Paul and my father did, listen to them and share wisdom gained from your own experiences. Demonstrate the joy of hard work, healthy play and great compassion for children of all sorts to do the same.
If you could sum up Paul’s personality, drive and outlook on life, how would you describe him?
He was a true pioneer. It became clear from the first time I bounced the idea of Youth Challenge off him that he was not hesitant to take a risk. Nor did he think that I should be with this concept.
Time to time, I would have a problem and meet him for lunch. Within an hour, he would have me define it and he would clearly explain it symptoms and how to proceed in correcting or solving it. Step by step, he truly saw each situation as a learning opportunity to move forward with and from. I would describe Paul as a fearless forward thinker and doer. His eyes and mind were constantly looking ahead. (Click to Tweet!) He had confidence in hard work. Felt mistakes were invariably part of moving ahead and should not be feared, just dealt with honestly and forthright.
Why do you think sports like skiing are so important for children with physical disabilities?
In September one weekend, our older teens at YC are camping. It was a clear, cool 60 degrees for kids in wheelchairs, many quadriplegics. Between tents, campfire, meeting personal needs, fun hikes, hand cycling activities and friendship, outdoor experiences put them out of their comfort zone resulting in new lessons learned. This type of expanding of ones “known zone” seems to be highlighted in skiing and mountain sports.
Skiing offers a unique freedom all of his own. It truly impacts those with and without disabilities in a spectacular way. Mountains and hills create a new environment for those disabled that are fortunate enough to access it. Whether cold, snowy, sunny or slippery, new challenges and horizons are presented every run. I am partial to the sport as a 30 year professional ski instructor, but moreover just passionate about what outdoor opportunities offer us all.
How is Youth Challenge impacting kids today?
Whether a child/teen is quadriplegic, nonverbal or an amputee, our offerings have expanded to include team and individual sports that can be for “fun” and/or Paralympic competition locally and nationally. Our geographic footprint reaches daily into 5 counties with 2 offices and program spaces virtually everywhere we play a sport. Our hub is a great facility with a gym where we have 9 lift equipped vehicles. This makes our mission accessible to teen volunteers and families of children with disabilities right in their neighborhood. The transformational changes that we have witnessed again and again impact these amazing children participating AND teen volunteers who serve as their partner almost daily. We put each teen volunteer and a child with disabilities in a sport, and often the sport as the common denominator opens doors that diplomas cannot quite access.
Our consistently demonstrating what one CAN do, in a caring way, has given thousands of youth a way to compete, create and grow across the years (almost 40 since inception!) Strengthening each individual’s social skills naturally accompanies sports activity and the need for personal independence among participant. Across time their insight as to what arts, sports, interests and behaviors they choose to participate in grows. Thus they may choose where they hope to thrive and set goals to achieve them of their own accord. The vast array of opportunities YV exposes them to empower them to choose.