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  • C Johnston

Larry Gioia: Emphasizing the Ability in Disability

Fifteen years ago, Pittsburgh native Larry Gioia enjoyed a half-day kayaking trip with his older brother down the Youghiogheny River. The experience rekindled a love of being on the water that began in his youth. It provided an exhilaration, joy and contentment that he didn’t find other places.

Paddling on the water quickly became a passion. That afternoon changed Larry’s life – which in turn, changed the lives of thousands of others.

“A lake carries you into recesses of feeling otherwise impenetrable.” ― William Wordsworth

Being a natural teacher, Larry wanted to share his new passion with others. Interested in being a kayaking instructor, he checked into the ACA, which started as the American Canoe Association in the 1800s and is now a broader-based paddling organization. He took a course and became a certified paddling instructor. He enjoyed giving lessons.

A friend had invited Larry to help out at a boat show in Chicago. There was a large pool and his assignment was to makes sure that kids were safe and had a good time as they tried out kayaks.

He realized that one youngster, Evan, was struggling to paddle. Larry went over to help him and saw that Evan only had one arm.

“I’m an instructor,” he explains, “but I didn’t know what to do. I helped as much as I was able to at the time. He was such a great kid and I wanted to do more.” Larry then internalized this need to help, thinking about it and wondering how he could do more. He also kept in touch with Evan.

“That experience in Chicago and Evan has had a lasting impact on my life and changed my entire worldview.”

While continuing his research at home, Larry stumbled onto adaptive sports – a entirely new subject to him. He learned that adaptive sports are competitive or recreational sports for people with disabilities. They’re usually similar to typical sporting activities, but include modifications necessary for people with disabilities to participate.

He researched what was going on in adaptive sports in his hometown of Pittsburgh. And he found that there were a lot. Wheelchair basketball, sled hockey, handcycling, skiing - but there was very little by way of kayaking. He saw an opportunity!

Spurred into action by seeing the need and having a heart to help, Larry checked into what the ACA might offer. He found that there was a three-day, immersive course on adaptive paddling being offered in Akron, Ohio. He took the course and earned his ACA Adaptive Paddling endorsement. He was hooked!

Returning to Pittsburgh, he strived to find out all he could about adaptive sports in the area.

He realized that there were dozens of organizations in the region. However, they were all working independently. A friend and fellow entrepreneur, Jason Miller, had started ActiveCities - an online directory of all of the recreational activities and organizations in Pittsburgh. However, no adaptive sports organizations were listed – another opportunity!

Jason, who is the Assistant Director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Campus Recreation, was also thinking about how more could be done. Jason and Larry had an idea – what if they invited everyone they collectively knew working in various adaptive sports areas to meet in person? They did and they were shocked at the turnout. Over 150 people showed up at the introductory meeting at the Petersen Events Center. They all started talking, enthused about their common goals and opportunities, and the Pittsburgh Adaptive Sports Network was born.

This networking organization and all it does remains important to Larry. Together, the network provides services, connections, ideas and assistance that are impossible for the individuals and organizations to find on their own.

And as a newly certified adaptive kayaking instructor, Larry realized the importance of collaboration.

He started his organization, Dynamic Paddlers, with the simple mission of creating opportunities for youth and adults to develop independence, maintain personal fitness, and gain self-confidence through paddling.

“I started with $10,000, some foam, duct tape, and a certification,” he laughs. Adaptive kayaking equipment is expensive, although sometimes simple changes make a big difference. He started learning about and working with people with spinal cord injuries and what it would take to adapt a kayak to meet their needs

“If there’s magic on this planet, it’s surely contained in water. It is truly the ultimate equalizer,” Larry expresses.

Every person is unique, and Larry is skilled at looking at what each can do and adapting the equipment and teaching methods to the individual. He emphasizes the ability instead of focusing on the disability.

“Learning to paddle on water provides a tremendous amount of self-assurance to someone who wasn’t able to do anything like it before. My instruction is an on-ramp for people to build confidence and spend rewarding time with their families and friends.”

Ellen Clancy knows first-hand the difference that Larry Gioia makes. Her 28-year-old son Brendan, who is on the autism spectrum, has the cognitive ability of a three- to five-year-old. He can’t read or write, but is “incredibly social and loving.”

The family liked being on the water, and so her husband Tom would paddle for Brendon. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if he could paddle himself?’ But there were so many reasons we couldn’t teach him.”

Brendan didn’t understand the safety concepts. He doesn’t know his left from his right. And he doesn’t learn easily.

The Clancys contacted Larry, who had helped instruct many people with various physical abilities, but hadn’t yet worked with anyone with an intellectual disability. He agreed to meet with them, and Brandon warmed his heart.

Larry created a plan and helped Brendan to learn to paddle. He stressed safety as he gave and repeated instructions. He listened to Brendan and got him to try new tasks, one at a time. Finding out that Brendan’s attention span is better in the morning, Larry would work with him at 8 a.m. And the big difference maker: because Brendan didn’t know his left from his right, Larry used color duct tape on the paddles and sides of the boat. He called out, “Red, blue. Red, blue” instead of “Left, right. Left, right.”

“Larry did more than we could have dared to hope for,” Ellen says. “He is tremendously patient, calm and energetic. And it’s true, there’s something magical about being on the water. It’s calming, and a wonderful experience. It was all amazing.”

Together, Larry and Brendan worked at paddling. Wonder of wonders, Larry was in the kayak, and Brendan paddled for them. He really did it.

And the next step -- to everyone’s delight – Brendan paddled solo, in his own kayak!

Brendan accomplished the complicated task of kayaking on his own and became confident in his abilities. Ellen shares that he had been afraid to go on a zipline, but after learning to kayak, he gave that a try, too. Today, life and its possibilities are much bigger for Brendan.

Larry is tremendously busy with Dynamic Paddlers. Helping people and seeing them learn inspires him. And by the way, he also has a day job that he loves. He is a technology executive at PwC.

Realizing that there were more people who needed help than he could work with directly, he started thinking bigger. He expanded his adaptive paddling journey and the next year working on his certification to become an ACA Adaptive Paddling Instructor Trainer. He received his certification and is now one of only 15 such instructors in the world!

He has taught other kayaking instructors in the discipline of adaptive paddling in Pittsburgh and across the country, from Florida to California, and places in between, like Ohio and Michigan.

His friend and fellow instructor-trainer John McDonald shares how Larry is a can-do, problem-solving leader. They were only teaching in the US and the ACA is a national organization. Larry received a message from Outward Bound about international interest in teaching adaptive paddling.

Soon, Larry was working on how to teach adaptive paddling instruction to people around the world. That included many adjustments in languages and instruction, not an easy task. “He’s completely open minded when it comes to helping people. His out-of-the-box thinking makes things happen.”

And so 2017 Larry and John went to Hong Kong for Outward Bound and taught people how to help people with disabilities how to paddle. They are planning on going to New Zealand next.

“A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.”

- Proverbs 11:25

Today, Larry’s most important roles are being husband to his wife Maria and their sons, Luca and Dominic. But adaptive paddling remains a passion.

Larry has trained hundreds of people, who have, in turn, taught hundreds of people. So, because Larry rediscovered his love of being on the water – and then met a boy with one arm named Evan – thousands of people with varying disabilities around the world have discovered the joy of paddling.

One pebble in a river can make great ripples.

“And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.”

- 2 Thessalonians 3:13


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