Deana Acklin works to make the outdoors more accessible for all on and off campus

At five years old, Deana Acklin, campus bicycle coordinator and adjunct instructor of Outdoor Recreation Management, went through one of the most difficult experiences of her life. Acklin, who was born with congenital heart disease, had to undergo open heart surgery as a child.

Acklin was told many times that her condition would limit her physical abilities and prevent her from playing sports and doing outdoor activities at a competitive level, but this did not stifle her passion for the outdoors.

She attended Lees-McRae College and played volleyball and tennis for the school, overcoming many of the struggles that she experienced as a child due to her condition, and nurturing a growing passion for making the outdoors accessible to other people of varying abilities.

This is a passion she has been able to carry through into her professional career at Lees-McRae through her work with the non-profit Catalyst Sports, and her efforts to make the college’s campus more bicycle friendly.

Catalyst Sports is a national, chapter-based non-profit that specializes in adaptive sports and making outdoor recreation and activities accessible to people of all ability levels. The non-profit partners with neighboring Beech Mountain Ski Resort to provide adaptive ski lessons, a program that Acklin has been involved with for years.

 “Overall, there has been a huge segregation between people with disabilities and the general population. There are a lot of barriers for people with disabilities who want to participate in outdoor activities,” Acklin said. “With Catalyst we have the privilege to break down some of those barriers. Not all disabilities fit into a particular diagnosis. We serve people with cognitive and intellectual disabilities as well as physical. We’re able to get just about anyone out there on the snow.” 

Disabilities are extremely varied, so Acklin and the team at Catalyst Sports do their best to adapt to each individual and ensure that they can enjoy the slopes. Certified ski instructors from Beech Mountain work together with Catalyst volunteers, who act as assistants. Anyone with an intermediate to expert skiing ability can serve as a volunteer and just needs to supply their own gear.

Acklin hopes to get more members of the Lees-McRae and Banner Elk communities involved in the adaptive lessons. If you are interested in volunteering with Catalyst Sports, a volunteer registration form can be found here.

“Working with Catalyst Sports brings awareness to the volunteers about the barriers that people with disabilities face in the outdoors,” Acklin said. “It’s important to get our youth thinking about an ‘outdoors for all,’ so that when they start working in the outdoor industry after college, they’re going to have the mindset of ‘How can this be available to anybody?’”

Another outdoor activity that Acklin is working to make accessible to everyone is safe, fun, and efficient bicycling. Four years ago, she started a League of American Bicyclists Smart Cycling program for Outdoor Recreation Management Majors. The training, which teaches students about traffic law, bicycle handling and safety, crash avoidance, and more, is now available to the community.

The next Smart Cycling certification course is on Saturday, April 9. Find more information about the details of the course and how to sign up here.

“My goal is to teach them how to understand and use everything that their bike is capable of doing, how to share the road, and how to command the road when necessary to make it safer,” Acklin said. “I started with that Smart Cycling class, and then created a student-led advocacy group on campus called C.R.A.N.K. Crew, because we needed to have student leadership on campus.”

Through C.R.A.N.K. Crew, which stands for Community Riding Advocacy Nature and Knowledge, Acklin and the club’s members have brought several bike-friendly initiatives to campus. Last year the club installed bike racks at three of the residence halls on campus, and Acklin hopes to install two “cycleaid” stations with tools and bike pumps on campus this spring.

“The mission is to bring awareness to the benefits of bringing a bike to campus, to encourage more students to bring bikes to campus, to host clinics and events to show people how to do that, and also to build that community connection,” Acklin said. “We get students and faculty involved, on bicycles, and interacting together. Just having that connection with each other and reconnecting with being on a bike again is so important.”

These and other efforts made Lees-McRae eligible to apply for The League of American Bicyclists’ Bicycle Friendly America Award. This award can be granted to communities, businesses, and universities, and Acklin wanted that recognition for Lees-McRae.

“Last year I spearheaded the application for Bicycle Friendly University Gold Status, and that awarded us our gold status. I’m really proud of our campus as a whole. It was a collective effort to be able to be acknowledged as a Gold Bicycle Friendly University, and it’s something that we’re still implementing,” Acklin said.

Lees-McRae is the smallest educational institution in the United States to be awarded gold status, and the only educational institution in North Carolina to do so, a feat which Acklin said means a lot for the college’s commitment to making biking accessible.

Acklin’s commitment to an “outdoors for all” speaks for itself, and the positive impact that she has made on the outdoor recreation industry both here at Lees-McRae and in the community is one that will be built upon for years to come.

“I've never forgotten what it was like to be that little girl who was told she couldn't do things,” Acklin said. “It's important to me that everyone has the opportunity to see what their body is capable of.”

By Maya JarrellMarch 04, 2022
AcademicsCampus Life