Program Profile

Impact Feature Issue on Paraeducators Supporting Students with Disabilities and At-Risk

Volunteers in the Office and the Woods: Wilderness Inquiry


Vicki McKenna is Director of Administration with Wilderness Inquiry, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

It’s about one o’clock on Friday afternoon, and the quiet of the Wilderness Inquiry (WI) office is brought to life by the sounds of laughter and loud chatter coming up the entry ramp. The group from TBI Metro Services has arrived for its weekly volunteer activity. The seven individuals with brain injuries and their two support staff are ready to work. For over five years, they have been providing an important service to Wilderness Inquiry’s operation.

The day’s project is laid out for them with clear instructions as to what needs to be done. One week it could be preparing informational packets for distribution to potential donors; today it is preparing 200 news releases for mailing to newspapers across the country. This is vital work for WI and the volunteers feel proud to be able to contribute to their community in this way.

It’s a team effort as the workers get down to business. The assembly line is set up, several fold and pass to others to stuff. Then the sponges come out for the sealing process. The volunteers from TBI have had severe traumatic brain injuries, the results of which have left them with various disabilities and challenges. It may seem an easy task to fold some papers and stuff them into an envelope, but if your brain injury has left you with the use of only one arm, the challenge becomes one of adapting, re-learning, and changing the way you do things.

Wilderness Inquiry is nationally recognized as a leader in promoting social integration through its outdoor adventure program. The organization was founded in 1978 with the mission to provide wilderness experiences to persons of all ages, abilities and backgrounds. People with and without physical and cognitive disabilities paddle and camp side-by-side – learning to appreciate and respect the differences and abilities of each other.

During its 23 years of supporting people with disabilities in its programs, WI has developed a Universal Program Participation Model (UPPM) and organizational philosophy that purposefully integrates people with a wide range of disabling conditions as peers in each of its outdoor recreation and adventure programs. This includes people with physical, sensory, cognitive, and emotional disabilities. But in order to fully realize integration of all individuals into the community, the process must continue in the real world. The lessons learned in the woods of northern Minnesota also apply in the office buildings of Minneapolis. Every individual deserves respect and the opportunity to contribute to society. WI applies this same philosophy of social integration in its volunteer program.

Jill McKibbins, a Service Planner with TBI Metro Services, said people with brain injury volunteer for the same reasons as anyone else. “Everyone wants to feel needed, as though we count and are contributing members of a community. Volunteering is a way to give back to and be a part of something valuable, and it helps build self-esteem and confidence,” says Jill. It also helps people with brain injury rebuild skills necessary for the workplace. “It’s a chance to build bonds, develop teamwork, and relationship skills, to practice working and getting along with one another, so that they can then move on to paid work and be successful,” she notes.

Both WI and TBI Metro Services work to educate and integrate the community by bringing people with and without disabilities together and teaching them how they can learn and benefit from one another. Among the regular volunteer opportunities at WI in which this is practiced in a manner that also supports the organization are: 

  • Volunteer night on the first Wednesday of each month. Two WI staff coordinate the work done by individuals of all physical and cognitive abilities. Several of the regular volunteers have developmental and learning disabilities. Following the same philosophy that WI employs in its outdoor adventures, every job is subdivided into tasks that allow everyone to participate. No one is left sitting off to the side, just watching. In addition to the work, the evening is also a great opportunity for socializing while eating the pizza provided by WI.
  • Free outdoor skills workshops conducted by WI throughout the year, which could not take place without volunteers of all abilities. They perform a variety of tasks from strapping snowshoes on participants at St. Paul’s Winter Carnival to helping people find the right size paddle at a Minneapolis canoe event. One young man with a learning disability has been so valuable at these workshops that he has been hired as a part-time trail staff for the summer.
  • Sunday nights during the summer months, volunteers assist with pack-ins – sorting and cleaning equipment used on wilderness trips.

Wilderness Inquiry currently serves over 40,000 individuals of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities annually. With fewer than 20 full-time staff, this would be impossible without volunteers and a deep commitment to the mission of the organization. Social integration is just as important in the office as it is in the woods.