Charles Cruz discovered horseback riding through The Adventurers.
By Bobbie Sawyer
When Virginia Medina’s son Charles was diagnosed with a seizure disorder at 18 months, she wasn’t sure what was in store for the future.
Medina said she, like many parents of intellectually disabled children, struggled with where to send her son to school and even considered retiring from her job to stay home with him.
But it was at Bedichek Middle School that Charles joined The Adventurers, a volunteer-run program for the intellectually disabled that provides hands-on learning and life-skills training through outdoor education and recreational trips.
Since joining The Adventurers, Medina said Charles, now 27, has a vibrant social life and has seen his communication skills increase by “101 percent.”
The Adventurers was formed by Southwest Austin resident Diane Mackey, a retired adapted physical education and life skills teacher who has devoted her life to serving teens and young adults with special needs.
Medina said meeting Mackey put to rest any fears she had about sending her son to a public middle school all those years ago.
“Knowing what each child had and how she was going to help each child individually, I wouldn’t trade that for anything in this world,” Medina said.
The Adventure Begins
Mackey first got the idea for The Adventurers through teaching adapted physical education in the mid-1980s.
“I worked with all special needs elementary-aged kids and I wanted to not only do P.E. with them, but take them out into the community to really experience the things that we were learning, especially going out into nature,” Mackey said.
From there, the adventures only got bigger, from three-night camping trips to McKinney Falls, to a Disneyland vacation with 80 middle-schoolers in tow, to a week-long venture to Washington D.C. to learn about American government first-hand.
“Like I always said in the classroom, learning from a book is really difficult when you have a developmental or intellectual disability,” Mackey said. “All those experiences helped me to see how much the kids really learned.”
To help with cost, Mackey, along with the parents of special needs children, formed a special education booster club, which became the foundation for The Adventurers.
Mackey said in addition to providing hands-on education, the Adventurers also provides an opportunity for special needs teens to develop a sense of independence.
“So many of the parents would say they could see a difference in the kids when they came back,” Mackey said. “They were wanting to be a little more independent and wanting to do things more for themselves.”
Maureen Hesprich said Mackey has helped her son Jacob strive to take chances and have new experiences that might otherwise seem out of reach.
“Like horseback riding,” Hesprich said. “I, as a parent, would never make him do it. I would never want to make him afraid—but she’ll say ‘try it one time.’”
Mackey said the most rewarding part of leading The Adventurers is seeing the teens and young adults grow closer to one another.
“I love to see them develop friendships and just be silly together and have a good time with their peers,” Mackey said.
In fact, The Adventurers has helped develop lifelong friendships. Jacob Hesprich and Ashley Chapman have been in the group together for over 10 years and will now take part in the state Special Olympics together in Arlington over Memorial Day weekend.
Chapman said she’s also developed a close bond with Mackey.
“As a teacher she was really good to me and as a friend she was always there for me,” Chapman said. “She gave me advice whenever I needed it—she was everything a mother or a friend could ever hope to be.”
Claudia Bera, whose daughter Ruth has been in The Adventurers for 15 years, said the group has provided a social circle for the parents as well as children.
“Back when they were little we didn’t know what we were dealing with,” Bera said. “Diane has been helpful with pointing everyone in the right direction for different things available for their child. She’s put them in a network of activities,” Bera said.
Bera said providing a social outlet for her daughter has always been a main concern.
“Socially, I think it’s been very wonderful. I remember when I was a little girl, there was a young man that lived a couple houses down behind us and he was blind. He never did anything. I was a little girl and I remember that. I thought ‘I don’t want that for my daughter.’”
Mackey’s outreach has also had a profound impact on her own family. Her husband John works closely with her, chaperoning trips and driving buses, while their sons, Josh and J.T., are longtime Adventurers volunteers and are focusing on careers in special education.
The Next Chapter
In September, Mackey will open The Adventurers Academy of Lifelong Learning, a 501c3 nonprofit organization, which will provide continuing education classes as well as vocational training and will target students with special needs age 18 and above. Students will have the opportunity to enroll either full time or part time.
Unlike The Adventurers, which relies entirely on the efforts of the Mackey family and devoted volunteers, The Adventurers Academy of Lifelong Learning will employ paid staff members.
“We want to offer a really top-notch program,” Mackey said. “A lot of programs that you see out and about, they pay minimum wage so there’s a high turnover in the staff. We want to make sure we keep a high quality staff and that takes paying them a fair wage.”
The Adventurers will host their fourth annual Spring Fest fundraiser, featuring live music, a silent auction and an enchilada dinner on May 19 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at La Fuente’s Restaurant. The funds raised will go toward helping The Adventurers in their ongoing educational trips as well as help fund The Adventurers Academy of Lifelong Learning.
Mackey said meeting goals on a limited budget has often been the greatest struggle for The Adventurers.
“Sometimes my dreams get bigger than a pocketbook,” Mackey said. “There are a lot of things that we really want to do and feel like we could do if the money was there. I’m sure a lot of people have that same obstacle and challenge. My biggest challenge is being able to provide these experiences and not having to turn anybody away because they can’t pay.”
Tickets for Spring Fest are $15 and may be purchased at the door or online at austinadventurers.org. Children age 3 and under are free.
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