TRAILS creating paths to success

Story and photo by NATALIE CHRISTENSEN

TRAILS Brochure

After sustaining a spinal cord injury, it’s hard to get back into life as it was before. But, a program in Salt Lake City called TRAILS can help those individuals become involved in recreational sports.

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Sugar House Park is an area where TRAILS participate in preparing for races and other events. Photo by Natalie Christensen.

TRAILS (Therapeutic Recreation & Independent Lifestyle) helps anyone with a spinal cord injury get out and be active in outdoor recreational sports like skiing, hiking, kayaking and more. The main goal of this program is to help people not just physically, but also spiritually and mentally by keeping a tight community of people affected with spinal injuries.

TRAILS is housed in the University Hospital, which provides most of its funding. Medical residents as well as trained volunteers assist with the program by helping participants in the outdoor activities.

“We have a community of people with spinal injuries,” said Tanja Kari, the TRAILS program coordinator, in a phone interview. “Peer mentors are able to help each other.”

Mentors and participants give advice and share feelings and thoughts about this new part of their life with their peers. According to the TRAILS website, “The Peer/Mentor Program is a collaboration with United Spinal Association and links an experienced mentor to a peer who will work on problem-solving, self-management and assist with assimilation into an active lifestyle.”

Wally Lee has been involved with the program for five years and has really enjoyed it and what it has to offer.

“Having a spinal cord injury and trying to do something is an effort,” Lee said in a phone interview. “It’s a hassle to find transportation. Having a spinal cord injury is hard but everything is there (with TRAILS).”

Lee explained that getting any equipment to do anything with a spinal cord injury makes it hard to do recreational sports and is very expensive. But now that he has access to the equipment he is able to participate in activities he used to do before he became paralyzed.

Because of TRAILS Lee has been able to do recreational activities with not only other participants, but also with his family again. Lee is now teaching others with spinal cord injuries how to play wheelchair tennis,  and do sit skiing as well as other sports.

“I really enjoy it (TRAILS),” Lee said. “Having a wheelchair, you get isolated because you don’t want to be around people in wheelchairs so you end up alone, but with recreation you can integrate back into able bodied recreation.”

TRAILS coordinator Tanja Kari had her arm amputated at birth. She has always been an active athlete, and has been involved with sports for people with disabilities her whole life. She was also a gold medalist in cross country skiing in the 2003 Paralympics. However, she agrees that TRAILS has been a highlight.

“Being disabled is limiting,” Kari said. “Seeing people in the hospital then getting back into activities is incredible. It’s a privilege to be a part of.”

Kari and Jeffrey Rosenbluth M.D., assistant chief of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at University Hospital, started the program in 2006. Rosenbluth, who specializes in spinal cord injuries, had envisioned this program even before Kari came along. But with a professional in the medical field and an athlete who has been involved with sports for people with disabilities, TRAILS has become a success.

Kari explained that many people who sustain a spinal cord injury don’t usually want to be involved in sports, but when they join TRAILS their attitude changes and they end up loving this new way to participate in recreational sports.

Participants don’t have to be a patient at the University Hospital. It is open to anyone with a spinal injury.

People who are interested in volunteerting with TRAILS don’t have to be a nurse or a professional. Volunteers will be trained in how the equipment works and how they can help the participants with spinal injuries get back into activities that they were once involved in, or try a new sport they didn’t know about.