Grand Canyon, AZ – It's October 8, and the sun has yet to rise over the Grand Canyon as Sarah Service and eleven companions set out on a trail from the South Rim. Bundled up against the early-morning cold, we bow our heads in prayer.
The 22 year-old Carrolton, Ky., woman will hike seven miles down the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River and back with a handful of friends by her side. The story's twist, however, is that Sarah hasn't taken a step in six years - after car accident rendered her a paraplegic. Now, with the help of a special chair, a handful of volunteers and a mountaineer named Jim Eibert, she is about to become the first disabled person to navigate the dusty canyon paths.
Jim Eibert has been working really hard to get funding for it for a long time, and I was always all for it. I was ready to go from the moment he said something. Gosh it's so pretty.
It's five a.m., and Sarah's mother, Beverly, tightly buckles her daughter into a chair called a Travel Rider, and armed with headlamps and Snickers bars, we all begin our slow descent down the cliffs.
The leader, Eibert, an ox-like man with bulky arms and an easy smile, pushes the Travel Rider from the back, balancing the chair on its one wheel. Throughout the 16 hour hike, he would sit down only once.
The trip to the Grand Canyon came about from a idea of starting an adventure program when I became the camp director at Easter Seals Camp Kysoc. I'd only been there six months when I realized that a lot of people had not been given the opportunity to go into a lot of the national parks and a lot of the world's greatest adventure hikes who had the inability to hike. As I discovered this, I began to realize, What a great adventure program to develop world-wide where people that cannot walk can start doing these adventurous hikes.'
Eibert's dream began three years ago, and Easter Seals enthusiastically jumped on board. Finding money, however, proved much more difficult than getting company support. After years of grant writing and phone calls to big companies, he finally found enough funds to embark on the program's first adventure with the help of Carrolton special needs teacher Amy Hewitt. Hewitt's belief in the project and stubborn determination garnered thousands of dollars for the group's budget. She donned a backpack and joined for the trip.
Not a lot of children or adults have the opportunity to do this and they're not given the chance because you have a small population that's interested in disabled communities because if they don't affect you, then a lot of people don't want to help, so in order to get that majority of the population to help, you need to spread awareness. Through this program with Jim, I hope that's what we're going to be able to do.
We keep our sights on the Colorado River, but after four and a half miles of grueling work, we pause at Indian Gardens and eventually turn around. The path simply holds too many logs and if we go any further, the men won't have the energy to pull the young woman back up. With tearful regret, we turn around. Sarah is disappointed the most.
I want to go see the Colorado River. We came so far.
As Hewitt points out, however, Sarah, the young Kentucky woman, has still set an example for disabled people across the country.
Failure is a measure of perspective, and in my eyes today, we did not fail. We succeeded, and it gave people with disabilities a little bit of hope as well.
Seven men now carry Sarah's chair up the steep path to the top, three of them no older than 18.
Chris White, Sarah's pastor, mans one of the chair's sides, helping to lift it over obstacles. He says he has never encountered an experience so strenuous.
There's nothing like it. Just carrying yourself up the hill is normally what anybody would do, and your pack, but what we're trying to do with getting over these logs and fighting gravity and fighting elevation, it's just very, very hard. It's good, but it's very, very hard.
After nine hours of pulling and trekking we can see the end of the trail and the bright lights of the Grand Canyon resort. Exerting more energy than anyone expected, we all struggle to the top of the Southern Rim, and after being jarred and shaken all day long, Sarah has proven that a disabled person can make the trip.
There was some jerking and some bouncing and stuff, but she was able to withstand that exceptionally well, and because of that, this is going to work. You just could not have a better person than Sarah to be out there opening the doors for others with disabilities, and she's just - she's that great first person to be working with. We will get her down all the way to the bottom for sure.
Eibert is planning several more adventure hikes for the disabled, including another trip down the Grand Canyon over Thanksgiving and a trip up Mount Kilimanjaro with Sarah in January. But this first expedition will be remembered as the day an ordinary group of people made history as a favor to a friend.