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NO LIMITS: Waypoint Adventure gives students with physical and emotional challenges real-life experiences outdoors

Delaney Supple, left, and Sylvie Lammert have a laugh as they hike at Houghton's Pond in Milton. Waypoint Adventures offers year-round programs like hiking, rock climbing, paddling, cycling, and cross-country skiing.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

For 32-year-old James Ryan “J.R.” Foley of Milton, the attraction of Waypoint Adventure was a chance to go rock climbing, despite being confined to a wheelchair most of the day. Ruby Castro, a 27-year-old from Lynn, deals with a cognitive delay but still wanted to try kayaking and backpacking. And 61-year-old Peter Quinn of Boxborough, who suffers from primary lateral sclerosis, joined Waypoint for a recent bike ride through the western suburbs aboard his specially designed adaptive trike.

The activities demonstrate the wide range of programs offered by the Lexington-based nonprofit for people of all ages and different physical and emotional challenges.

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Founded in 2010 by Dan Minnich and Adam Combs, Waypoint was the phoenix that rose from the ashes of Outdoor Explorations.

“Outdoor Explorations started as a group of friends, with and without disabilities, who wanted to adventure together,” said Minnich, 41, of Bolton. “Fifteen years later, Adam and I were the two program coordinators and each of us had a background in outdoor education. We wanted to try an adventure education model, a model that uses adventure as a learning tool for social and character skills.

“We began explaining to the teachers and social workers how we could design a lesson plan around their classroom goals or themes, giving students real-life experiences that tied to those goals,” he said. “We wanted students to see that strategies used to go rock climbing and kayaking — like communication, problem solving, and advocating for yourself — are applicable in the classroom and their everyday life.”

Before a Waypoint Adventure hike in Milton, staff, volunteers, and hikers gather and introduce themselves. Waypoint Adventure provides ways for those with physical and mental challenges to experience the great outdoors.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

After Outdoor Explorations folded, Minnich and Combs launched Waypoint Adventure to carry on its work, with year-round programs like hiking, rock climbing, paddling, cycling, and cross-country skiing. The programs combine fun, physical activities with “positive individual and group development. They’re about building social and character skills, forming teams and transforming people’s views of themselves and their abilities,” according to Wayside’s website.

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“Disabled people are people. They deserve to have access to everything that is available to the general community,” said Minnich, Waypoint’s executive director.

Privately funded, Waypoint is affiliated with roughly 30 public and private entities, including the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation, Central Rock Gym, the Trustees of Reservations, Boston and Somerville public schools, Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, Perkins School for the Blind, East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, Project Adventure, and Franciscan Children’s hospital.

Since 2010, the organization has worked on programs for more than 12,000 participants, Minnich said. Last year, Waypoint staff members and more than 150 volunteers offered close to 300 adventures, with more than 1,600 participating. Interestingly enough, the COVID pandemic gave Waypoint programs an unexpected boost.

“At first, I wondered if we would need to furlough everyone,” Minnich said. “Then, around the time we learned that we didn’t need to wash our groceries, we learned that being outside was one of the least risky places to be. We started with private lessons and adventures for families.

“By last summer, most schools and many social service agencies were meeting in person, and group programming was back,” he said. “We’ve grown during the pandemic to try and keep up with the increased demand.”

Volunteer Bob Vogel holds his hiking poles during a Waypoint Adventure outing at Houghton's Pond in Milton.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Volunteers, Minnich said, support the program through a range of tasks, such as handing out life jackets and water bottles, paddling the back of tandem kayaks, or providing support during rock climbing sessions.

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Bob Vogel, 74, of Easton, a longtime Appalachian Mountain Club hike leader and Waypoint volunteer, has helped with numerous outings, including indoor and outdoor rock climbing, hiking, snowshoeing, kayaking, and ropes courses.

“Just like all of us, Waypoint’s clientele has things that they’d like to do, and others that aren’t as appealing,” Vogel said. “They also have the issue that maybe some of the (programs) they would like, they just can’t take part in. So, having many options allows them to find enjoyable things that they can take part in.”

The organization also offers the Waypoint Adventure Club, which features programs without volunteers. “Instead, there are only people who want to participate in an adventure with a diverse group of people,” Minnich said.

“Everyone pays a $20 registration fee (per activity) and contributes their strengths and receives support where it is needed,” he said. “The whole group works together to participate in adventure, often at a more challenging level than most of our programs.”

Most important to Minnich, he said, is that the organization isn’t depicted as “a savior of folks with disabilities.”

A Waypoint Adventure leader-in-training (back of kayak) and the student she is teaching paddling a tandem kayak to shore on the Charles River at the Woerd Avenue boat launch in Waltham.Waypoint Adventure

Foley is a perfect example. Born with multiple suture craniosynostosis — a congenital condition involving premature fusion of a cranial “sutures,” or joints — Foley has undergone 43 surgeries, said his mother, Karen Foley of Quincy. J.R. typically relies on a power wheelchair because of the pressure on his brain stem, but can use a walker for short distances. He lives in a group home, and attends day programs at Friendship Home in Norwell.

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Karen Foley said they first heard about Waypoint Adventure through Spaulding Rehab, where J.R. was participating in the Spaulding Adaptive Sports program.

“A couple years ago Spaulding offered a rock-climbing event at the Quincy Quarries, which was run by Waypoint Adventure,” she said. “I was blown away at their ability to safely adapt equipment so J.R. could participate in activities just like everyone else.”

Rock climbing at Central Rock Gym in Stoneham. Waypoint Adventure

In addition to rock climbing, J.R. has also tackled a ropes course, kayaking, hiking, and an overnight backpacking trip with Waypoint over the past two years.

“I loved every one of the programs,” he said. “The ropes course was my favorite because not only was I a big help to my friends while they went up on the swing, I got to try it for myself. I’m a daredevil and I have no fear of heights.

“The most challenging time was camping, because I never slept in a tent before,” Foley said. “I loved all the things that led up to the camping out, like hiking, eating outside, preparing the tents. But the sleeping in the tent wasn’t my cup of tea. But hey, at least I tried it.”

That, said Minnich, is a primary goal of Waypoint. It allows participants to try, giving everyone a chance to discover his or her potential. Likewise, Waypoint program manager Steven Dasman said “if people never experience genuine challenge and see themselves successfully overcoming it,” they’re less likely to challenge themselves, and more likely to avoid challenging situations. The result is a missed opportunity to grow.

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“However, people need tools, skills, opportunities for practice, and a supportive community to do this,” said Dasman, 28, of Allston. “That’s where an organization like Waypoint comes in.”

Two participants on a hike at Blue Hills Reservation in Milton with the Waypoint Adventure Club.Waypoint Adventure

Inclusion is another key component of the Waypoint model. When Castro first joined a Waypoint-sponsored hike at Blue Hills Reservation in Milton, she was the only Latina participant, said her mother, Luz “Lucy” Hernandez.

“I worried how others would receive her. Then I met one of the staff,” said Hernandez, adding staff members not only made Ruby feel welcome, but eventually recommended her daughter for Waypoint’s leadership program. “Waypoint has been a great opportunity for Ruby to participate socially with many different people. She enjoys all of the challenges — emotional, mental and physical.”

Waypoint’s counselors have served as mentors for Ruby, and “she’s always excited to work with them and see them,” Hernandez said. “As a parent, this has been my favorite part. I have loved the staff’s ability to be with the participants.”

Quinn, whose degenerative neurological disorder affects his motor skills, balance, speech, and strength, said his trike provides a stable platform for his personal adventures. But Waypoint’s outings provide something equally as valuable — camaraderie.

“Being alone, and loneliness, comes with being disabled, so I think community is a big part of Waypoint’s offering,” said Quinn, a former management consultant who was forced to retire. “And I think Waypoint is helping the disabled to say ‘yes’ to life, and expanding their concept of what is possible, and what may be possible in their future.”

Despite the program’s current level of success, Minnich said Waypoint has yet to reach critical mass. Funding, however, is always a concern.

“We have a long waiting list, with our calendar mostly full through June of 2023,” Minnich said. “There are nearly 10,000 students receiving special education services in Boston public schools alone, with nearly 3,000 of those in substantially separate classrooms. We have a long way to go before we’re able to annually serve the number of people we’d like to.”

For more information on Waypoint Adventure, go to WaypointAdventure.org.

Globe correspondent Brion O’Connor can be reached at brionoc@verizon.net.