In 2013, I unknowingly landed what was to become the most morally, physically, and mentally life-changing job I would ever have. I was twenty years old and had just dropped out of college, (for the first time) packed my bags, and landed in San Diego on a whim. I sought a part-time job at a local rock climbing gym called Mesa Rim. Back in the day, it was very much a grass-roots community. There were a few close-knit staff members who knew us so well they’d bake our favorite cookies, and a seemingly unlimited potential to break into the burgeoning climbing industry in whatever niche you could imagine.
I started out just working the front desk one or two days a week. I had grown up climbing everything from rocks to trees, to the walls on a rainy day while growing up in the northeast. I was a hyperactive, naive, and somewhat sheltered young adult who had never done yoga, drank kale, or imagined that people collected in drum circles on the beach. The culture of Southern California was so mystifying at the time that every day felt like an adventure.
In school, I struggled to sit still. Whether it was to do homework, finish a project, even just listen in class, I could never do it. My muscles always itched to be on the move. Teachers would tell me that my attitude towards education was failing my brain that could exceed at it. I preferred going kayaking or hiking or spending hours at dance practice over being still and doing work. I remember the countless nights jumping on my trampoline for hours on end just trying to get all of my energy out so that I could lay down and go to bed. Had I been a kid today, I imagine they would put a fancy name on it like ADHD or some other generalized hyperactivity disorder. At Mesa Rim, I finally found acceptance in that characteristic in me. I never felt shame for wanting to climb for five hours at a time. If anything, it was celebrated. It was finally something I could channel all of my intensity into without the guilt of forfeiting something else to do it.
After a while, all adventures need to trail back to reality. I was starting to go broke, the fear of missing a college degree was creeping in, and I drank so many vegetables that I was starting to turn green. Laying in bed one night I tossed and turned about what was next - would I go back to school? Would I give up this lifestyle that fostered exploration? I wanted to do something that helped people. I wanted to have an impact. I thought of a program I saw while ago, back home. A group that worked with kids with disabilities in this tucked in little area of a climbing gym. I always saw the kids come in, but never really got to see them climb. I thought about a pair of sisters that had come into Mesa Rim. One in a wheelchair, one walking and trying to check into her youth class. The sister in the wheelchair looked on with a longing desire to play with her sister. I never thought much about it until this night, but then the idea haunted me. If someone in a wheelchair couldn’t climb, how many other people also felt that way? Why couldn’t they? There’s ropes, there’s coaches, there’s all different levels... It seemed like the easiest place for someone with a disability to get moving. Around 2 A.M. I sent an email to Mesa Rim owner, Ian Mcintosh. “Hey Ian, Has Mesa Rim ever considered starting an adaptive climbing program? I saw it once and though it could be cool for us.” This was the first time I learned that visionaries are night owls, because two minutes later I got: “Sounds like a cool idea. Let’s talk this week.” This two email exchange would alter the course of my life for good. We set a date for the fall. We were going to invite anyone with a physical disability to come climb. I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea what I was in for. I was stoked.
As summer settled in San Diego, I was getting into a more regular routine with life out here. On a random day climbing at a different gym I was surprised to see that I couldn’t really hold onto anything with my left hand. I went up to my partner and said, “Taylor, I seriously can’t grab anything with my left hand. It’s so weird.” “You’re probably just climbing too often and overdid it. Just rest a couple days.”
The next few weeks were some of the most terrifying weeks of my life. In the following days, I lost the ability to hold anything in my left hand, I slept for twenty hours a day, and I couldn’t keep a thought train straight in my head. I flew back home to see a neurologist I was referred to and quickly hopped into an MRI machine. A couple of days later I got a call. “Hey Jillian it’s your doctor. I looked at your scans.” He kind of grunted and sighed. I pictured him shifting around on a stool mustering the right conjugation of words. “So yeah. I thought about our meeting the other day. I looked at your scans. Um, there’s some active lesions going on. This is, um, Multiple Sclerosis. It’s early. You caught it very early, but you’re going to need to take care of that when you get back to San Diego. Or, you know, you can come back and do treatment here, but yeah, you’ll need a treatment plan.” “Oh. Okay. Well, thank you for doing this on short notice. I’ll give you a call back.” I hung up, looked down at my phone, and didn’t feel connected to my body for the first time in my life. What was happening to me? I was twenty years old. Was I going to die? What about all the things I hadn’t done yet? The most fatalist thoughts you can imagine come sweeping in. Have you ever thought there was a bug caught in your sweatshirt while hiking? You shake your sleeves and try to get it out. That’s what I wanted to do with my brain. It felt like there was something foreign in there. Something I wasn’t allowing to happen was going on and I just wanted to shake it out.
My return flight to San Diego was two days later. I flew home wondering what was going to happen to me. I had started to build a life in San Diego. I was in love, I had a job, and I wanted my future to be there. My first day back I had to open Mesa Rim early in the morning. Ian McIntosh knew I flew home because I wasn’t feeling well, and around 9 AM I saw him walk into the side door. I knew he was going to ask me how it went. I was sitting alone at the front desk when he walked over and pulled up a stool. Ian has this really disarming way of approaching you. He doesn’t hold any expectations or make you feel any certain way. There is a really specific type of kindness that I haven’t seen anywhere else. The conversation has turned into a blur for me as most of the next few days did as well. Word spreads fast when you are part of a small circle and I had the same conversation on repeat about my diagnosis. The steps go - tell someone your diagnosis, watch them get emotional, tell them everything will be okay, get hugged, reassure them again, walk away wondering if you’re a liar. It was draining. Over the next couple of months I put every ounce of energy into planning this adaptive clinic. I did as much research as I could about different disabilities, adaptive programs in other sports, and basic medical terminology regarding prosthetics. The day of the event really cemented into my soul that anything I do in the future had to be human-centered. I love hearing different climbers’ stories, seeing families connect in new ways, and watching Mesa Rim rally around a whole new demographic of people.
It has been over five years since that day, and so much has changed. I have come to an agreement with my disease, I watched a nonverbal child with autism say his first word while in a climbing gym. I’ve seen countless people climb their way out of wheelchairs, blind climbers scale four stories, cancer survivors feel like an athlete again, and parents have hope that their kids have a future. I have been cried on, cried to, and cried for all in the name of rock climbing. The adaptive program now runs throughout the week serving everyone from children with cerebral palsy to veterans to people with bleeding disorders. Mesa Rim gave me a future, a dream, and a passion when one person said "yes I believe in this idea that you have." There was so much there, so much energy, so much love, and so much passion. I wanted to turn it all into something more. This is when I founded The Hazel Foundation for Athletics. I collected some of the brightest and kindest people I knew and set out on a mission. Our plan was to expand on everything we learned through adaptive climbing. We wanted to reach all underrepresented groups in sports and make sure that everyone who sought the benefits of sport and recreation has access to it. We wanted to do this in a couple of different ways. The one most passionate to me is education. Stephen Covey once said, “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.” I wanted to learn from people facing access issues. I wanted to see where their challenges were and what stood in the way. Once immersed in their community I wanted to help build opportunity.
We sought education as our first mission as a foundation. I traveled across the world to Mahboula, Kuwait. It is the richest country on the Arabian peninsula, and also a country that does not have a single field that girls can play sports on. I had the opportunity to talk to students, parents, teachers, and faculty about how middle eastern culture affects women's' ability to play sports. I walked through the country and saw futbol game after futbol game with not a single other woman in sight. Cricket games with only men on the field. It was striking to say the least. At the end of this trip we cut the ribbon on the first female accessible soccer field on the property of a private girls’ school. Will it change their lives immediately? No. Will it plant a seed to challenge the norm? Well, I hope so, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Our next big goal was to embrace our roots. While we want to encourage all things sport and recreation related we know we have deep roots in the adaptive climbing world. This past March I landed at LAX from Kuwait and immediately drove to Bishop, California to host the first adaptive climbing presence at the Flash Foxy Women’s Climbing Festival. I spoke on a panel to talk about the challenges that face disabled women in climbing, and what The Hazel Foundation is doing to erase them. After the panel we hosted a meet up where adaptive climbers from around the world, and those that wish to support them, could come climb in one of the most famous bouldering areas in the world. The next major goal is to share! I started a podcast with our Marketing Director, Eric Franks, so that all the incredible stories we come across can be shared! It is one thing to do the work, but sharing the story and igniting passion in other has always been a very sweet part. We want to make sure the people we work with are represented and we believe in the art of telling stories. It is all coming together. I’ve always had an innate love for the human condition and a self destructive need to mitigate it, but I have found a tribe that can channel my energy in a way my disorganized mind never could. You cannot stop, you have to be relentless when chasing a goal. In the coming few months, The Hazel Foundation will be using ballet as a way to teach leadership skills to high school girls in rural Mexico, sending adaptive climbers to compete at the IFSC Paraclimbing World Championships in Briancon, France, creating athletic programs for hospital patients with bleeding disorders in Mozambique, Africa, funding a summer climbing camp for kids with autism, and revisiting our field in Kuwait. Please stay tuned to the Vuori Blog to watch our story unfold. - Jillian Yatsko