It takes all of us

Colorado’s Outdoor Equity Grant Program breaks down barriers

Photo by Chelsea Elder.

This past summer, a 90-year-old Korean War Veteran cycled around Chatfield State Park with his entire family, while a young boy with a visual impairment discovered his love of climbing on an adaptive climbing wall. Another veteran with lupus participated in a 12-hour adaptive ride challenge by the end of the season without oxygen. 

For people with physical disabilities, accessing the world of outdoor sports can be a challenge —  physically and financially. An adaptive bike, for example, can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000. 

But with help from the state’s Outdoor Equity Grants funding, adaptive athletes played for free this summer at Chatfield Park. 

Hosted by Adaptive Adventures, a Westminster-based nonprofit making outdoor sports accessible to children and adults with physical disabilities, the Get Outdoors and Play Multisport Days typically draw around 140 families to Chatfield State Park, providing adaptive cycling, kayaking, paddleboarding and climbing. 

“Getting that opportunity to feel the wind in their hair, the freedom of riding a bicycle, being with their family, getting to interact in a fun way that’s not going through their medical routine every day — it just really helps bring that quality of life back and that feeling of independence, joy, freedom and exhilaration,” says Chelsea Elder, executive director of Adaptive Adventures. 

Adaptive Adventures received $45,000 in Colorado’s first round of Outdoor Equity Grants in July 2022. The money covered the cost of six Get Outdoors and Play Multisport Days as well as six weeks of the org’s Adaptive Sports for Kids program. 

The grant program was created through House Bill 21-1318 and uses lottery money to increase access to Colorado’s outdoor spaces for underserved youth and their families by funding organizations across the state that connect a variety of populations to the outdoors including those with disabilities, young people of color and LGBTQ+ youth. In December, a second round of Outdoor Equity Grants were awarded, bringing the total grant money dispersed to $3.1 million. To date, more than 60 organizations across the state have received an Outdoor Equity Grant. 

“We’ve seen the transformative impact these grants have had by breaking down barriers and empowering the next generation of Coloradans to experience, enjoy and care for our amazing outdoors, and we are excited to continue this important work,” Gov. Jared Polis said in a press release.

Cost, transportation, and lacking a sense of belonging have all been barriers to access and inclusion in the outdoors, says Joel Hartter, director of CU Boulder’s Outdoor Recreation Economy program. More than 70% of outdoor recreation participants are white, and only 46% of participants identify as female, according to the 2022 Outdoor Participation Trends Report. 

“Colorado is known for its outdoor spaces, and we need to work hard to ensure that everyone is able to enjoy those opportunities,” Hartter says. “Creating those opportunities creates a new generation of folks, young and old, who are outdoor enthusiasts … When we think about access, and we think about inclusion, it’s got to include everybody.”

Girls on Rock, a Boulder-based organization that received $46,300 in the first round of funding this past summer, seeks to empower girl-identified youth, along with young people who are nonbinary and nonconforming, through science, art and outdoor education.  

The organization takes 16- to 18-year-olds on a free, two-week expedition in the backcountry of the Rocky Mountains to develop outdoor leadership and science skills with a focus on providing the opportunity to youth who are low-income, Black, Latino and from other racial and ethnic backgrounds that  “have been historically not welcomed into the science and outdoor recreation industry,” says Pacifica Sommers, chair of Girls on Rock’s volunteer leadership board.

“This grant really makes next year’s expedition possible to not lose that momentum and that institutional knowledge,” Sommers says. This summer’s expedition will be the fourth of its kind and will be fully funded by the Outdoor Equity Grant.

The expeditions help develop participants’ confidence, appreciation for their environment, and sense of community, Sommers says, with a goal of “building lifelong advocates for science and environmental stewardship, and to have the outdoor recreation and environmental research community better reflect our communities and not just a small subset of them.” 

Joanne Liu, co-founder and CEO of Asian Girls Ignite, also sees the power of outdoor spaces as a place to build community and resilience. The Denver-based organization received $78,000 in the most recent round of Outdoor Equity Grants funding to build on its mission to empower Asian American and Pacific Islander girls through a variety of programming that connects young people with role models. “Ultimately, what I would want them to experience is that Asian women can and do exist in many different spaces,” Liu says. 

Now, with the Outdoor Equity Grant, Asian Girls Ignite is expanding its outdoor programming and launching a program in which cohorts of middle and high school students will learn backpacking or climbing skills over the course of about six months. 

Photo courtesy Chelsea Elder.

“We hope we’re supporting with building resilience, self-efficacy and trust — not only in oneself, but also the community through these activities because a lot of these activities require support,” Liu says. “For example, for climbing and top roping, you need people to support you with that. And so [it’s about] really trusting not only yourself, but also your community through these activities.”  

Hartter says the Outdoor Equity Grants are an important first step in getting more people outdoors, and that those already in the outdoor industry need to work to create similar opportunities for new people to experience the outdoors. 

“This is really going to take all of us,” he says. “We have to bring that level of sophistication and that hard critical thinking into developing and supporting the outdoors as a place for everybody.” 

To get involved in one of these organizations as a participant, volunteer or donor:  

• Adaptive Adventures: 

• Girls on Rock: or email [email protected]. Participant applications for this summer’s expedition are due Jan. 31. 

• Asian Girls Ignite:


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