Jayson Eusecio, of Kodiak, Alaska, used an ocean kayak in Kaneohe Bay as nine other Alaskans rode in a dugout canoe Wednesday as part of the Trading Places program activities.

Disabled kids exchange
outdoor adventures

He rolled his wheelchair up to the horse, grabbed the railing and lifted his body into the well-worn saddle with ease.

Although confined to a wheelchair when his right leg was amputated after a water skiing accident four years go, 26-year-old Gerard Ah-Fook is leading a group of young people through the trails at Kualoa Ranch.

The physically and mentally disabled youths from Alaska and Hawaii are participating in a cultural exchange program called "Trading Places," designed to include the disabled in recreational activities like skiing and surfing.

In March, Ah-Fook and his friends traveled to Alaska to ski, ride snowmobiles and dog sleds. This week the group from Alaska is here to learn to surf, ride horses and explore the ocean.

"I'm totally happy to share my home with them -- just to see their excitement being in the water for the first time or seeing cockroaches and geckos," said Ah-Fook.

"I felt really good because Morgan, who's hearing impaired, asked me to take him out further in the water to see a turtle," said Ah-Fook. "He reached out and touched the shell. He was just beaming."

Ah-Fook remembers how the Alaskan group laughed when the Hawaii participants complained about the cold, and how he trusted them to push his wheelchair through the deep snow and across a frozen pond, one of scariest parts of the trip, said Ah-Fook.

"The program was beyond what the participants thought they were capable of doing, and they were afraid sometimes," said Kevin Dierks, program director for the Sea of Dreams Foundation. "They all rose to the occasion, and that alone makes them so much stronger."

Trading Places is an alliance between The Sea of Dreams Foundation, Challenge Alaska and the Hawaii Centers for Independent Living (HCIL) and aims to encourage the physically and mentally challenged to participate in physical activities that usually exclude them, said Pat Lockwood, HCIL executive director.

"The program is designed to challenge them, provide new experiences and give them a foundation for pursuing a career in the recreation industry," said Lockwood.

Ah-Fook said, "I learned that these kids face the same challenges I do, and I felt like I had an interesting perspective to offer because I wasn't disabled all my life. I'm optimistic, from what I've seen with this program, that people can overcome just about anything."

Some of the Hawaii participants had never left the island, let alone skied or played sled hockey. Four participants were in wheelchairs, some were deaf and others had developmental disabilities.

The activities required a few modifications and plenty of planning.

To ski, Ah-Fook and other wheelchair users sat in a bucket seat on a suspension, attached to one or two skis. The suspension mimics the way knees naturally absorb the shock. They used mini poles for balance.

Dog sledding only required the driver to be able to use both legs to guide the dogs on the trail. The wheelchair users got to sit back and enjoy the ride, said Ah-Fook.

The Hawaii participants also braved the weather that dropped to minus 8 degrees to ice fish and learned about Alaska's native culture.

In Hawaii, the Alaska group is dealing with the tropical weather. One participant gladly accepted six aloe leaves to help heal the blisters on his sunburned back.

They were all looking forward to an afternoon of kayaking and swimming at Secret Island, across from Kualoa Ranch.

Ah-Fook couldn't wait: "It's so awesome to all be in the water -- in my domain, my home -- where I'm free."


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