April is National Volunteer Month and is meant to recognize those who give of their time, skills and energy to support different causes, helping others. Last month, Blue Yonder associate Ellie Hislop shared an anecdote about how she’s working to inspire inclusion in her community for International Women’s Day 2024. We asked her to share more about her story in honor of National Volunteer Month.

I’ve been volunteering to help make the sport of sailing accessible to adults with spinal injuries. I’m sharing my story to shed light on some of the amazing efforts taking place in New York City to promote inclusion.

Hudson River Community Sailing (HRCS) is non-profit youth development and community sailing organization working to develop leadership and academic programs for underserved NYC youth, organize adaptive sailing opportunities for adults with spinal injuries, and offer maritime education and recreational/social activities to the city at large. HRCS believes that sailing and maritime activities should be made accessible to everyone.

Every other week from May to September, we partner with Veterans Affairs groups and other local organizations to provide adults with a range of disabilities the opportunity to sail a sailboat on the Hudson River. We have several sailboats in our fleet that have been specially adapted to accommodate individuals who are often paralyzed below the waist so that they may steer the boat and control the sail using a system of lines and pullies.

I volunteered to get involved with the HRCS Adaptive Sailing Program due to prior experience I had volunteering with adaptive wheelchair sports like basketball and golf back where I grew up in Atlanta. However, I didn’t realize how much more finesse was involved in transporting individuals from their wheelchairs to a floating vessel in the Hudson River – this was quite nerve-racking at first! Luckily, HRCS has several members who work as full-time occupational therapists who trained us to use the special lifts and fasten the veterans safely into their seats.

I’m used to a fast-paced life in New York City, so the great deal of time and care we took in transporting each veteran to their boat reminded me how precious mobility is and how to have the upmost patience.

There are really two types of sailing: sailing for leisure and sailing to win a race. I am much more accustomed to the latter, but in this case, it’s all about leisure and exploration – there’s nowhere to be and all we have is time!

For the veterans, we enjoy sailing upriver where the conditions are calmest, and you can sail to landmarks like the Rockefeller Estate and the Dyckman Street Bridge. While out on the water, we give the veterans guidance, but largely let them sail the boat on their own. We have the opportunity to talk and hear their stories, where and when they served and, in some cases, how they were injured. This serves as a strong reminder to appreciate the things I often take for granted and be thankful for the opportunities I have, though I want to be clear that these individuals are some of the most gracious people I’ve ever met.

It’s most important to note the incredible resilience of these veterans who are determined to overcome obstacles and live as normal of a life as possible. This physical, mental, and emotional resilience is truly inspiring, as you witness veterans who had their abilities taken from them learn to lead a new life of fulfillment and joy. Adaptive sailing empowers a sense of freedom and independence on the water – a feeling that is fleeting in a life where your caregiver assists you with almost all basic needs and your day-to-day activities.  

I’d like to leave everyone with this reminder of the HRCS mission – that everyone can learn to sail, and sailing provides a unique opportunity for growth and discovery. While the sport of sailing has a reputation of being exclusive due to its high costs and accessibility limitations, at HRCS, it’s all about removing the barriers to entry for all to enjoy access to the water and the opportunities it brings – yes, even the smelly NYC Hudson River!

Perhaps in your community this mission of inspiring inclusion looks different, i.e., helping underprivileged students gain access to better education or ensuring everyone has access to food and health care. Whatever the cause, we each have so much to give in the form of our time and energy, and I’d love to hear others’ volunteerism stories. I look forward to another season of sailing with differently abled individuals and learning from them every day.

To find a volunteer opportunity near you that matches your passion check out Volunteer Match or United Way.