In #RaiseMKE

Michael Kozlowski of Waukesha crushes another challenge. (PHOTO: Royal Brevvaxling)

Free-to-borrow outdoor wheelchairs help folks take a new path

Since 2008, Michael Kozlowski has used a wheelchair, and yet in the past decade he has jumped from an airplane, gone rock climbing, skied and played basketball. Until this week, however, Kozlowski had never gone hiking on a trail, but he can now cross that off his bucket list of athletic adventures.

Kozlowski and Becky Thompson, his "support broker" who works for Wisconsin's IRIS program, recently borrowed an all-terrain outdoor wheelchair (OWC) from Riveredge Nature Center. Thus, on a sunny, summer-y Wednesday, we went on a one-mile hike and chatted about everything, from the merits of Eminem to overcoming depression – all in the serenity of nature.

"An opportunity like this creates independence, builds confidence and increases critical thinking and focus, something extremely useful to someone like Michael who has a traumatic brain injury," say Thompson, whom Kozlowski refers to as his "second mom."

Riveredge Nature Center, located in Ozaukee County, is one of eight sites in the state of Wisconsin that offer outdoor wheelchairs on loan from Access Ability Wisconsin. (Click here to reserve one.) Currently, Milwaukee County does not have outdoor wheelchairs available, but hopefully will in the near future.

There is a $50 refundable deposit to reserve an OWC – or the $50 can be donated to maintenance – and the chair is available to the user for a few hours to a full week.

"To take the outdoor wheelchair offsite you need a vehicle with a hitch that can pull the trailer," says Ed Makowski, marketing director for Riveredge. "We're expecting the chair will be particularly popular this fall during hunting season."

The durable OWC features what look like tank tracks in place of wheels and can be used year round during the day or at night for hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, bird watching and outdoor excursions like weddings, field trips and anywhere else with a terrain that a regular wheelchair can't accommodate.

But the most important aspect of this week's hike was that Kozlowski had fun and easily rolled over branches, leaves, rocks and uneven ground.

"I'd do this again in heartbeat," he says.

Take part of the hike with us and see this chair in action:

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