Some of the kids are in wheelchairs. Some of the kids are bouncing off the walls with energy and enthusiasm; some of them are painfully shy. Some of them are really scared — those are the ones he likes to work with the best.
Well, that’s not exactly true: He likes them all.
Jeff Riechmann is a big guy, but around the kids, he gets down on his knees, eye-to-eye, and makes friends. His voice is gentle, soothing without being patronizing; his words are calm and inviting.
These two hours here at the climbing gym are focused solely on the kids, just as he is. The ropes and harnesses, the volunteers and the simple routes on the walls — they’re are all about giving kids with disabilities an opportunity to try something new, something challenging, maybe something a little bit scary — and an opportunity to succeed.
He says: “When I hear a parent tell me that their child benefited from this; when a parent tells me that ‘I never thought my child could do this’; when I see tears running down the cheeks of a parent because they’re just amazed at what their child did — that’s the incentive.”
Nearly three years ago, Jeff turned his climbing hobby and his spare time in retirement into a nonprofit called Courageous Kids Climbing. The goal is simple: to provide kids with special needs — physical or developmental — a chance to try various forms of climbing. Climbing gyms donate their space and expertise; Jeff provides specialized harnesses, volunteers and the impetus.
He has organized 14 climbing events in three states since 2014 and reached 170 children.
“When I started doing this, I really didn’t think anything would come of it.”
But something has. JoJo Tuinstra is a 12-year-old climber from Kuna with cerebral palsy. He’s in a wheelchair, and this is the third time he’s been a Courageous Kid Climber.
JoJo: “There’s constant challenge. (I’m) constantly thinking, ‘One rock higher, grab this handhold. I can’t do that — yes, I can.’
“The constant revelation of things you can do.”
• • •
Jeff comes to this work from his 28-year career of firefighting in Southern California.
“One of the things I learned a long time ago as a firefighter — and my fire department really pushed it — was you have to give back to the community. You have to do things for the community.”
There’s that, and then there’s the climbing part. After Jeff retired from firefighting in 2005, he worked for an aerospace contractor in Southern California, teaching workers how to work on top of airplanes without falling off, which involved harnesses.
“Around that time, I thought I needed to do something physical fitness-wise, and working at heights always fascinated me. So that kind of led into climbing.”
Jeff would go out into the California desert and climb around on big boulders. When he and his wife, an Idaho native, built their retirement home in McCall, Jeff didn’t leave climbing behind. With free time on his hands, he started looking for something to do.
“Being a firefighter, you’re kind of interested in keeping the adrenaline flowing, let’s put it that way.”
The idea for Courageous Kids Climbing was born out of a conversation with Cascade Climbing Gym owner Larry Morten, who provides the “brains,” Jeff says, while he’s the “labor” of the nonprofit.
Jeff organizes events at gyms all over the state, including in Boise and Caldwell. A few weeks ago, April Hanson watched her 6-year-old son Carter climb at Wings Center of Boise.
April: “A new experience to build some more confidence in himself … It’s a great way to get kids involved in things they normally don’t have an outlet to experience — and really build that exposure to different things.”
Jeff has story after story about how climbing has helped kids with challenges. One little boy had a hard time focusing on anything — video games included — for more than a minute or two before he lost interest.
“His mom came up to me, she’s got tears running down her face ... She said he’s been climbing these walls for 30 minutes straight. ‘We can’t get him off the wall,’ she said. ‘He’s never focused on something this much his whole life.’”
Determination, independence, confidence.
“The little boy who has a hard time focusing, this encourages him to practice focusing. A child who, because of their challenges may have issues when it comes to problem solving, this gives them the opportunity to practice problem solving in a controlled environment.”
At an event in Moscow, a 14-year old boy with significant developmental challenges started climbing. He fell just a little ways up, but the ropes and belayer keep him safe. The boy’s father figured that was it, but to his surprise, the boy started climbing again.
“He climbed all the way to the top. He came back down. I was standing next to his dad and I said to his dad, ‘Well, what do you think of that?’ And his dad turned to me and he had tears running down his face and he said, ‘I never imagined my son doing this, with the challenges he has; I never imagined this in my wildest dreams.’
“That’s the kind of stuff that happens.”
• • •
Because of his background, Jeff invites fire departments and paramedics to come to events. Originally, they were charged with simply being role models. Jeff has a photo of a grinning boy.
“This guy was just excited because the firefighters just stood and offered him encouragement. You put yourself in the shoes of a kid: What could be more exciting than to have a firefighter standing there saying, ‘Hey, you’re doing a good job, keep going’? You know how kids look up to firefighters and police officers. ... ”
Jeff discovered that the kids who come to his events haven’t really had a chance to meet emergency personnel up close and in person. That became key. He remembers asking a girl whether she’d like to see a firetruck. She was blind.
“She just lit up. ‘Can I?’”
With undivided attention, firefighters put her in the driver’s seat and let her listen on the headset. They pulled tools off the truck so she could “look” at them with her hands. It was the first time she had ever gotten to experience a firetruck.
Besides getting to know the kids, rescue teams also help climbers who have physical disabilities. Jeff remembers two young men in Spokane who were quadriplegic. The Spokane Fire Department Rescue Team rigged up the men in rescue harnesses, and a firefighter climbed alongside and guided them, placing their hands on the holds.
“These two men just lit up when this happened.
“When the event was over, the one man … he’s standing to the best of his ability — he’s got hold of one of these harnesses like, ‘I”m ready to go again whenever you are.’
“I mean, when you see things like that — man, it just keeps giving back and back.”
• • •
If Jeff’s philosophy is true, that any kid’s self-confidence could use a little rock climbing, it’s also true that kids with special needs have a special place in his heart.
“All kids can benefit — but the benefit to a kid with special needs can be so much more than any child gets. And then you throw in the firetrucks and the firefighters and the cops and everything else, you get more bang for your buck, if you will. ...
“We try to do this in an all-inclusive environment. If, in some situations, if one of the kids were to go into a gym during normal hours or when the gym was filled, they would get stares or laughing. We try to have an environment that is really friendly and accommodating to the child.”
He remembers one little girl who was scared to death.
“I said, ‘Would you like to walk around?’ I said I’ll show you what we’re going to do and I’ll show you how we’re going to do it. ... I said you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to, but if you want to try, we have all these people who will help you.”
By and by, she mustered up enough courage to try.
“She climbed everything. It got close to quitting time and I’m packing things and she came over and she sat down. I sat down next to her; I said, ‘Did you have a good time?’ She leaned over, she put her head on my shoulder. And she says, ‘I’m so tired. But I had such a great time.’ ...
“I’ll be a firefighter till the day I die. I might not be running into burning buildings, but I like helping these kids. I like seeing the smile on their faces. When that girl came up and put her head on my shoulder and said, ‘Oh, I had fun today’ — that made the six-hour drive to Spokane all worth it. ...
“That’s what this is about. We built courage in this one lady.”
Want to help?
▪ Sponsor event T-shirts: Each participant receives a Courageous Kids Climbing shirt, so each event needs T-shirt sponsors. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
▪ Contribute to the Courageous Kids Scholarship at University of Idaho. Every year Courageous Kids provides a $1,000 scholarship to a person with special needs from Idaho or eastern Washington to attend U of I. Checks should be made out to the “University of Idaho Foundation” with “Courageous Kids Scholarship” placed in the comment section, and mailed to: Courageous Kids Scholarship, c/o University of Idaho Foundation Inc., 875 Perimeter Drive – MS 3147, Moscow, ID 83844-3147.
▪ Volunteer to be a climbing coach. Climbing experience is nice, but training will be provided. See their Facebook page for event dates and locations.
Want to participate?
▪ Visit Courageous Kids Climbing on Facebook for locations and dates. Register by emailing email@example.com.