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Fast Start: Accessible recreation is her game

In college she noted how ants create communities. Growing up, she watched her friends interact to better understand them.

Anita O’Brien has always been an observer. Today she is holistic in her vision for helping to create an inclusive community that thinks about everyone—including those with disabilities.

“I think I’ve always been a little bit more of an observer,” O’Brien says. “I would always take the perimeter and just watch and observe people, and part of that was just my natural inclination to be quieter and more observant than having to be right in the middle. (Doing that) you get a sense of people, that sense of character.”

Last year, O’Brien parlayed those useful introvert traits into launching Rochester Accessible Adventures Inc. Working with businesses, municipalities and medical offices, the nonprofit finds ways for people with disabilities to enjoy recreation with friends and family.

O’Brien is a certified therapeutic recreation specialist and executive director of RAA. She was trained as a certified inclusivity assessor through SUNY College at Cortland’s Inclusion Recreation Resource Center.

“Looking back at my career path thus far, I have to smile,” O’Brien says. “Our motto in graduate school for therapeutic recreation was ‘we work so others can play.’  I remember how that intrigued me then. I can say that being a ‘facilitator of happiness’ is something that completely resonates with me, and I’m very glad I have been open to following that path.”

RAA has 27 founding members and 13 board members. It also has a stable of volunteers who learn the ropes during clinics, watching O’Brien in action.

RAA developed a partnership with Erie Canal Boat Co. called Canal Pals to provide volunteer boating companions to anyone with a disability who would like to rent a kayak and enjoy time on the water. RAA applies the same volunteer arrangement for pickleball instruction with Pickled Power, she says.

O’Brien is a native of Georgia but has lived in Rochester for over a decade. She began her studies at the University of Georgia and chose her own academic path rather than pick a major.

“I entered college not knowing,” O’Brien says. “I had this great interest in people—I knew that much. It actually did work out really well that I could create my own degree of study, so I called it bio-sociology, which I described as human interactions with humans and human interactions with our environment. We all have roles, and that’s something that is just part of your culture no matter where you are.”

O’Brien earned a master’s degree in therapeutic recreation at Georgia in 1995.

She left the state and lived in Iowa for four years, working as a chore worker for aging or disabled people who wanted to remain in their homes. The work was physical, but it was another study of human roles, O’Brien says.

“I loved physical stuff—the lawns in Iowa were big and the snow was deep and I had a shovel—but the people I met were the sociological attachment,” O’Brien says. “There was one woman who was 101 living in her own farmhouse in Iowa, still had a garden, and I would spend lots of time with her after doing her yard, just understanding people and getting their stories. It’s just very cool.”

Ready for a change, O’Brien moved to Provincetown, Mass., on Cape Cod and began working for a kayaking company to lead training for people of all skills and abilities.

“When people are in situations where they have a range of emotions or they’re bringing whatever baggage, and you don’t know, you need to be crystal clear on what instructions you give them,” O’Brien says. “And that has been a teaching point when I’m working and training the (RAA) trainers and helping them understand.”

In 2000, O’Brien moved to Rochester. The area, with its strengths and history in medicine, proved the perfect location for her line of work. O’Brien landed a job as coordinator of recreation and day services with the Center for Disability Rights. 

“(Rochester has) strong resources in terms of different types of services for people with disabilities, so that made for a lot of opportunity,” O’Brien says. “Right off the bat I found a recreation job for people with disabilities; that was my grounding here.”

At CDR, she received a federal recreation grant to design a program providing adventure recreation—including scuba diving, horseback riding and rock climbing—that were departures from traditionally safer pursuits.

Helping others get out and adapt helped O’Brien adapt to the city herself, she says.

“It was good for me because I (said), ‘OK, what do you do in this city?’” O’Brien says. “We started going everywhere people go in Rochester. We were going to festivals and fairs and the movies and exploring different restaurants. That was a pivotal time for me to learn how the city works.”

In 2009, she took a management job at SportsNet, an adaptive sports and recreation company in Brighton that has brought more than 6,000 people into recreational experiences. The job helped O’Brien see the niche a nonprofit could fill in the market.

Today, Rochester Accessible Adventures works with recreation businesses to create an inclusive atmosphere. Activities span from kayaking to cycling to sled hockey.

“We have taken that step back and said, ‘What is the need?’” O’Brien says. “And the need is that families and friends recreate together, and if they have a disability they are still able to do it. As a business marketing thing it’s actually pretty big; it’s a niche that people haven’t tapped into, and so that’s the part of inclusion that we’re teaching them. My goal is that wherever people want to go, they’re able to go.”

#TeamPXY with Carter and Corey on 98PXY is a partner with Fast Start. Listen on Monday from 6 to 10 a.m. for their interview with Anita O’Brien.

11/4/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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