Sunday Conversation with … Eric Gray Recreation therapist strives to empower those with disabilities

As a kid, Eric Gray wanted to grow up to be a river guide. And if and when he had a family, well, they would just live on the river with him. The idea didn’t fly so well with Gray’s mother, who strongly suggested her outdoorsy and adventurous son take advantage of the HOPE scholarship and come up with a more mainstream way of making a living.

Luckily for some disabled veterans who climbed Grand Teton, or amputees who mastered kayaking, or blind skiers who raced down a mountain, Gray went to the University of Georgia and became a recreation therapist.

In 2012, he founded Catalyst Sports, a nonprofit dedicated to opening up the world of adventurous sports to the disabled community. On Saturday, Catalyst Sports is offering a free adaptive climbing clinic at Atlanta’s Stone Summit Climbing and Fitness Center. For more information, or to sponsor a climber, visit gocatalystsports.org.

Q: How did you end up doing what you do?

A: I knew that I couldn’t sit in an office all day. I had met the camp director at Camp Twin Lakes, which is for kids with chronic illnesses and disabilities. He was outside — and making a difference. He told me about recreation therapy.

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Q: Why were you at Camp Twin Lakes?

A: When I was 10, I was diagnosed with cancer in the orbit of my right eye. For eight years, I went to Camp Sunshine, which is a camp there for kids with cancer. Then I went back to volunteer in college.

Q: You wear an eye patch. Did you lose your eye?

A: After a year of chemotherapy and radiation, my eyelid didn’t close all the way and it caused severe dry eye. For 20 years, I lived in pain. After five or six surgeries in 2011, I went ahead and had the eye removed.

Q: Did your experience with cancer have anything to do with your nonprofit?

A: Understanding what it’s like to have cancer and look different but still being able to accomplish so much in life has inspired me to get others on that path. Just because people have different abilities doesn’t mean they can’t participate in some of the amazing things this world has to offer.

Q: What are the biggest challenges to getting people with disabilities to do challenging sports?

A: I am an adaptive ski instructor. No matter who you are, there is equipment out there that can get you from the top of mountain to the bottom. People don’t think they can do it because they don’t think that there is a way to do it. Lack of knowledge is one challenge. Sometimes it is lack of funds — adaptive sports equipment can often cost a lot more. At Catalyst Sports, we are trying to eliminate all of the barriers.

Q: You are holding this climbing clinic. What are the benefits of climbing for people with disabilities?

A: Climbing gives people a sense of accomplishment when they reach the top and gives them the attitude that, if I can do this, I can do anything. It also develops trust, teamwork, physical strength, and the list goes on.

Q: Do you get frustrated that people aren’t more active?

A: I understand people are going through a lot and have a lot of barriers to overcome. Prior to moving to Atlanta, I worked in an active duty rehab unit where some of the soldiers had gotten severely injured. Trying to get them healthy and active again when they were not interested could be a little discouraging at times.

Q: What do you get out of working with people with disabilities?

A: I feel that God has put it on my heart do to something like this. It just feels right. It is amazing to be able to empower people to do things that they never thought they could do.

The Sunday conversation is edited for length and clarity. Writer Ann Hardie can be reached by email at ann.hardie@ymail.com.

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