Just two months before his senior year in high school, Foster Andersen was riding a motorcycle in his hometown of Henrietta, N.Y., when he crashed. The accident left him in a coma. When Mr. Andersen came to, he was quadriplegic. He remained in a hospital for seven months; part of that time he didn’t know his own name.
In the nearly 40 years that have followed, Andersen has used a wheelchair. He can’t stand or walk. He can write when a pen is intertwined in his fingers, but he needs an assistant to help him with everyday needs.
Despite his physical condition Andersen has lived a rich and full life. A quick survey of his accomplishments reveals not one, but two college degrees and a huge network of people who call him friend.
But probably the best example of Andersen’s ambition and zeal is his nonprofit group Shared Adventures. Last summer the Santa Cruz, Calif.-based organization celebrated 21 years of bringing recreational and social activities to people with disabilities.
“We are founded on the belief that recreation, fun, challenge, and access to the outdoors are an essential part of a healthy and fulfilling life,” Andersen says. “We are the only year-round program that offers such a wide range of activities to people with physical challenges and special needs.”
The programs at Shared Adventures cater to people with a variety of cognitive and physical disabilities, including, more recently, wounded US military veterans. The participants go on camping trips, bowl, garden, ride horses, surf, and play bocce.
Cycling is on today’s agenda. A group of about 50 people gather at the veterans’ clinic on the campus of California State University, Monterey Bay for a 25-mile ride along the California coast. It’s hosted by Access Leisure, a program of the City of Sacramento (Calif.) Department of Parks and Recreation.
As a Shared Adventures staff member registers attendees, dozens of adapted bicycles are lined up for users to test. The bikes look like tricked-out adult tricycles. Low to the ground – for better balance – some come with two wheels positioned in the back for traditional pedaling while others have two wheels in the front for pedaling by hand.
Kai Azada, a Santa Cruz resident and Shared Adventures participant, is standing next to an adapted bike, waiting for the ride to begin. Mr. Azada has had balance problems since an accidental explosion during a training exercise decades ago while he was serving in the Army.
About a year ago he started to attend Shared Adventures’ monthly archery class because it reminded him of what he liked best about the Army: target practice.
“Archery is very much the same thing; you have to find this Zen-like place [in order] to hit the target,” Azada says. “It’s the same thing I found with bicycling. Getting somewhere on your own – you aren’t thinking about your physical condition.”
And that, Andersen says, is what’s at the heart of Shared Adventures: moments in time when a person isn’t focused on his or her physical or cognitive limitations. The idea is for those moments to build on one another and become the impetus for life-altering experiences.
“I have seen people with developmental challenges taking more control of their lives by helping as volunteers at our events, getting jobs in the community, and being role models to others,” Andersen says.
As the bike riders take off, he wheels over to the climbing wall, another activity for that day. He watches as participants take on the challenge of the climb. Andersen takes out his camera, using his chin to press the shutter. As he takes pictures, people walk up to say hello. He greets each person in the same genteel manner.
Andersen’s soft-spoken style, however, is not an indication of how he works. “If you are working with him, sometimes you’ve just got to hang on,” Azada says. “He is a force of nature.”
It’s easy to see why. Andersen holds degrees in mechanical and manufacturing engineering technology, and also has a certificate in computer graphics drafting. He has taught classes on learning skills for disabled people, worked as a computer graphics designer, and written a book, “My Second Life.”
He invented and holds the patent on the Quad-bee, an S-shaped disk that flies like a Frisbee. Through the years, he also has nurtured his love for the rock band the Grateful Dead, which he has followed around the country.
Andersen skis, kayaks, and sails using adaptive technology. Sometimes the adapted equipment is homemade, such as what he used the first time he went surfing in 1992. He lay prone on a surfboard while his friend stood upright and rode the waves. “Getting past those breaker waves was amazing,” he says. “I didn’t know what to expect.”
Every year on the anniversary of his accident, Andersen hosts a party. By the early 1990s, when the event had moved to the beach and expanded to include bands and adaptive water-based activities, the idea for Shared Adventures became clear.
“That’s when I decided I wanted to explore becoming a nonprofit,” he says.
In 2000, his nonprofit received a big boost from Nell Newman (daughter of actor Paul Newman), who saw a video about Andersen and pledged $20,000 to his cause.
“I never thought Shared Adventures would go over $20,000 in revenue, or I’d be able to hire a secretary,” he says.
Today Shared Adventures employs three part-time administrative staff and a handful of teachers, but counts on more than 1,000 volunteers to assist with events and activities. It offers year-round classes in yoga, gardening, and art. Single events such as the bike race, rock climbing, and camping and rafting excursions are usually in association with other nonprofit groups and government agencies.
Shared Adventures also hosts numerous social events, such as a Halloween dance and a winter holiday party.
The most well-known and well-attended event is called Day on the Beach. This past July, nearly 1,200 volunteers and participants descended on Cowell Beach in Santa Cruz to give participants a rare opportunity to kayak or surf in the Pacific Ocean.
Wendy Bell, a disabled yoga instructor and Day on the Beach participant, says the event is the best example of the great experiences the organization offers. And Shared Adventures helps her in other ways by offering a social network. “More than half of the people I meet are through Shared Adventures, so it provides something that can be hard to find,” she says.
In 2008 Andersen received a personal letter from Maria Shriver, first lady of California at the time, recognizing his work with Shared Adventures. In 2011, the Santa Cruz County Commission on Disabilities honored Andersen with an award; and in 2014, the California State Legislature named Shared Adventures the Community Resource of the Year.
“Foster is a master at seeing beyond what is expected,” Mark Stone, a California Assembly member, said in a statement. “His enthusiasm is infectious.”
While Andersen appreciates the accolades, what he loves most is hearing about the freedom that a Shared Adventures event such as Day on the Beach brings to an individual or a family.
“Hearing someone say ‘Oh, this is the first time my son or daughter has been to the ocean or touched the water’ is an amazing thing,” Andersen says.
How to take action
Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to groups that help people with disabilities or encourage sports and fitness:
• Benetech develops innovative and effective technology applications for unmet social needs. Take action: Help fund a digital library for people with disabilities.
• The GVN Foundation supports the educational work of local community organizations worldwide. Take action: Volunteer in Hanoi, Vietnam, to help children with disabilities.
• Nepal Orphans Home provides aid to abandoned or orphaned children in Nepal. It operates four children’s homes. Take action: Supply orphans with sneakers, socks, and T-shirts for sports activities.