Origin Story

People often ask — “How did you get started in adaptive kayaking?”

It all started in the Spring of 2010.  The University of New Mexico’s Center for Development and Disability called our founder, Kelly Gossett, who was teaching kayaking through his business New Mexico Kayak Instruction, and asked if he would teach kayaking at a summer camp for kids with autism. Kelly admits to knowing little about autism at the time, but through a round-table discussion of the camp directors, occupational therapist and counselors, they were able to effectively design a curriculum that would be safe and fun.  In the first year at Camp rising Sun, more campers signed up for kayaking than any other activity at camp!

Camp Rising Sun was such a huge success, the CDD asked if Kelly would develop a 6-week “Stepping Stones” class, a program that would integrate recreation into the daily lives of people with Autism. When Kelly asked the pool manager if he could rent the pool for 6 weeks, the pool manager suggested he speak to Jodi Haltom, an Adaptive PE (APE) teacher with Albuquerque Public Schools (APS).  Jodi works with children with autism, learning & intellectual disabilities, and those requiring intensive support.  Many of her kids cannot play basketball or kickball, so they go to the pool and swim. The two arranged a date where Kelly would come as a guest speaker and bring some kayaks to Jodi’s class. At the end of the first class, about half the kids loved kayaking, and the other half were unsure; not afraid, just unsure.  They decided to try again in a month.  Kelly arrived again a month later.  Jodi said when the kids saw the boats and gear, their physiology changed right in front of her. Suddenly they were excited and looking forward to her PEE class. By the end of the second class, every one of the kids were having fun, though many participated in their own, non-traditional way.  Kelly and Jodi knew they were on to something profound, although neither could explain what.  Having seen similar progress at Camp Rising Sun, Kelly knew this was more than a recreational activity — it had the potential to change children’s lives in a profound way!

Kelly Gossett

Kelly Gossett, right teaches Hawthorne Elementary School 2nd grade Robert Fortenberry 11, the right way to keep his balance in a kayaking at West Mesa Aquatic Center on Thursday October 18, 2012.

In the weeks that followed in the Fall of 2010, Jodi told other Adaptive PE teachers, and soon Kelly was a guest speaker at several APS schools. By the end of the 2010-11 school season, Kelly had taught 18 adaptive PE classes for APS, and had begun a pilot program for Veterans with disabilities through the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center.

In the Summer of 2011, Kelly taught a kayaking class for Camp Enchantment, a camp for kids with cancer, and the Carrie Tingley Wheelchair Sports Camp, a summer camp for kids who use wheelchairs.

By this point, several themes began to emerge:

  • Kayaking helped children with autism and other developmental disabilities with problem solving skills, motor planning, sequencing and quality of motion
  • Kayaking helped Healing Veterans find serenity and purpose in environments where PTSD, anxiety and depression could not compete
  • Kayaking helped kids with cancer and other life-threatening medical conditions overcome fear and develop a courageous can-do attitude
  • By taking children and Veterans out of wheelchairs and putting them in kayaks, they could go places where there were no roads, trails, sidewalks or curbs.

In the Fall of 2011, Kelly and Jane Bales established Kayak New Mexico as a legal entity and filed the 1023 application for non-profit status with the IRS.  Kelly and Jane would teach more than 30 adaptive kayaking Adaptive PE classes for APS during the 2011-12 school year, sometimes as many as 9 free classes a week, reaching more than 350 special needs classes per month, all at no cost to the schools, District or families.  In the Summer of 2012, Kelly began teaching at the MDA Summer Camp, a camp for kids with muscular dystrophy, and the ARCA vacation-camp for adults with developmental disabilities.

In the Fall of 2013, Kelly was awarded the prestigious Joe Pina Volunteer of the Year award from the American Canoe Association, largely for his work with Albuquerque Public Schools and Healing Veterans.  Within a week of the announcement, the IRS granted Kayak New Mexico 501(c)3 tax-exempt status.

In the Winter of 2014 another dream came true; a partnership with Hotel Cascada. Hotel Cadcada is a locally owned hotel with an indoor waterpark and lazy river. The hotel is about kids, families and water.  Kayak New Mexico is about kids with disabilities, families and water.  Kayak New Mexico rented the facility for four nights in May 2014 for an “Open House” pilot project.  In those four nights, KNM hosted approximately 780 kids and adults with physical and developmental disabilities, their families, support and peers, and recorded approximately 560 volunteer hours from an average of 20 volunteers each night.

“After serving for 7 years, where every day was a fight for life, nothing excites me anymore. I often drive my Jeep through the desert, as fast as I can, to get close to death, to remind me that I am still alive. Whitewater kayaking seems like something that would be good for me; it makes me feel alive again.”

P. Q. Albuquerque, NM 

When I was deployed, we would always talk about the things we would do when we got home. I always wanted to learn to kayak.  The opportunity to help another Veteran as a peer-mentor is something that really excites me.     Tags: Healing Veterans, Disabled Veterans, Wounded Warrior Project)

J. BAlbuquerque, NM

“You must undertake something so grand, you cannot possibly go at it alone.”

William James

“Let everything you do be done as if it makes a difference. It does.”

William James

“The greatest use of life is to spend it on something that will outlast it”

William James

“It is not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.”

Roy Disney

“If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way”

Napoleon Hill

“The world is constantly reminding you about the limitations of your child.  As a parent, you get in a mode of trying to defend them and give them the opportunity to be all they can be.  I am guessing that many people would say that it would be impossible for my son to kayak.  As I watched my son kayak, with a large group of individuals with autism, I thought to myself:
‘They are kayaking, they are good at it, and they are having a great time!

Chris KingAlbuquerque, NM

“Hotel Cascada is a therapeutic playground for people with disabilities; there’s nothing else like it in our city!”

Colleen WhiteAlbuquerque

“No one can tell our children are different when they are kayaking”

Jeanette BundyAlbuquerque, NM