No Barriers Summit NYC 2018: The Best Kept Secret

Welcome to the first blog post I have ever written. I’ve thought about it many times, jotting down the ideas in my head for the world to read, but nothing gave me enough passion to actually put the words down. Until now.

20181006_130547.jpg

This weekend, in the biggest Apple of the USA, I had the honor of attending an event that the world needs to know about. I call it “The best kept secret” and I’m about to be a rebel and tell you about it.

There is this organization out there called No Barriers and it has the power to impact every person in the world. The organization believes that what’s within you is stronger than what’s in your way. There are seven “Life Elements” in which they utilize to live a No Barriers life. The first one is Vision: to define a purpose that inspires you to give your best back to the world. The second is Reach: to move beyond your comfort zone to grow and reach goals. The third is Pioneer: to persevere through challenges to innovate. The fourth is Rope Team: to collaborate and connect with others to build strong communities. The fifth is Alchemy: to harness experience into optimism. The sixth is Summits: find the gifts earned through the struggles. Finally comes the 7th and possibly the most important of the Life Elements which is to Elevate: impact the world as a leader who serves.

Learn more about No Barriers here: https://www.nobarriersusa.org/about-us/

 An image showing the seven Life Elements of a No Barriers Life: Vision, Reach, Pioneer, Rope Team, Alchemy, Summits, and Elevate.  Image property of No Barriers USA

An image showing the seven Life Elements of a No Barriers Life: Vision, Reach, Pioneer, Rope Team, Alchemy, Summits, and Elevate.

Image property of No Barriers USA

What is the Summit?

This year’s Summit was one of eight official events. The first was in 2005 with a sort of test event in 2003 that could make this years the ninth overall. On the website, No Barriers describes the event as such: “The No Barriers Summit New York City is the place where leaders, change-makers and aspiring visionaries from all walks of life unite to discover how to bring the No Barriers Life to a world ready for greater possibilities.” However, they don’t tell you about how much the event truly has the ability to change you. I saw people cry tears of joy, I saw them break down barriers that they placed on themselves in their lifetime, but more importantly I saw them break down the barriers others have placed on them. This event offers classes and panels from experts in their respective fields that the attendees can take home and apply to their own lives. These classes are everything from rock wall climbing, adaptive boxing, yoga, and CrossFit to things like Broadway and music classes, new technology and so much more. I’ll let you in on my experiences with the classes I attended and the people behind them.

Innovation, Organization, and Twerking

Let’s start with innovation, because face it, you’re not ready to hear about me twerking and I certainly wasn’t aware I would be learning how.

No Barriers Life Panel

I chose the No Barriers Life Panel for my first class. I was able to hear from masterminds like Chef Michael Lomonaco who is a world renowned chef and the owner of Porter House in New York City. I learned from the creator of the first 3-d printed prosthetic hand and founder of E-Nable that there is an amazing community of people working to help those in third world countries. Dr. Ann Spungen of the School of Medicine in Mount Sinai taught us about the history and future of spinal cord injuries, and the pop culture specialist Mike Muse beautifully moderated the session.

It began with Dr. Ann Spungen, with her esteemed example Mr. Wu seated at the edge of the stage in an exoskeleton suit. Mr. Wu is a spinal cord injury subject and graced us with a demonstration at the end of Dr. Spungen’s educational presentation. We learned of the progression of these devices and also what stands in the way of said progression, mainly funding. The research facilities at Mount Sinai have been working hard to help progress the abilities of those with spinal cord injuries. You can follow their progress and support their development at https://icahn.mssm.edu/research/spinal-cord-injury to help others break down barriers. She shared a video with us of four spinal cord injury patients, which really I prefer to call them athletes, that completed a one mile race in the exo suits. These are people that, without the assistance of the suits, do not have function of the lower portion of their bodies. She informed us that there has yet to be a plateau in the progress these athletes have from utilizing the suit. With proper training, they improve things such as strength, bowl movement, and overall well-being.

Next we hear from Chef Michael Lomonaco and I’m not going to lie about how emotional the man made me. It came out of left field and smacked me right in the face. I had no idea what the man was about to hit me with. He was extremely grateful to be on the Life Panel and even jested that he wasn’t sure why they would select him for the event. He is currently the owner of Porter House New York which Esquire Magazine called one of America’s Best New Restaurants when it opened back in 2006. He’s known for being the chef and director of the once famous restaurant Windows on The World, a restaurant within the first tower of the World Trade Center. This is where he gets me, hook, line, and sinker. He begins by telling us about his upbringing as a New Yorker, how he became a chef, and his passion for food. He then describes, with heartfelt detail, the way he loved his restaurant family. He spoke about his customers only as guests in his restaurant home and his staff as family. When the holidays would arrive, they would all celebrate together, dressed in the festive garb of their own countries. The world was truly represented in this restaurant and it was represented with love. Each word he spoke painted a picture of culture, love, compassion. Then he punched me in the face and made me cry. Nobody makes me cry my own tears, well, almost nobody. He then begin to describe the happenings of September 11th, 2001. How that morning, instead of going up to his office, he stayed on the first floor to get his glasses fixed. How his optometrist held on to his frames as they felt a massive shaking of the building. The evacuation, the realization of what was happening, and the sheer feeling that is your very heart breaking when you realize that your family is up there. My heart broke for him. It broke because I knew I would never be able to truly relate. I know where I was that day. I was in the 6th grade, in Mrs. Novosad’s English class, watching on the school’s news channel. It’s not the same. I didn’t know anyone in New York at the time, I had barely been outside of Texas. There’s no way for me to fully relate. This weekend made it more real though, which I’ll add to in just a bit. Chef, I know why No Barriers selected you. You have overcome, re purposed your life in a positive way, and you continue to elevate those around you. What I learned next was that he helped create a fund, which raised 22 million dollars the first year (they have since stopped fundraising), that would provide funds for the families of the staff that perished that day. Even the new born that was born the day after, which they will send to college with the funding. They started as a family and they continue as such.

Finally to the stage was Ms. Jen Owens. As I was sitting in the crowd, I found her to be difficult to read. Her face was serious, nodding occasionally in agreement to something being said, but still very stoic. Looking back now, I see what you did there Jen. You sly dog you. You show up in your business attire, professional resting face, and sit there like you don’t know that you are about to punch the audience as well. I see you. She stands up and quietly starts speaking into the microphone, like a business mouse. Then they turn up the microphone and she hit me with it. She shows a picture of her and her family dressed in super hero attire, my first thought was some kind of race or event. I was wrong. She then informs us of the beginnings of E-Nable. A non-profit that helps 3-D print prosthetic hands for those in need all over the world. It began with cosplay. Ohh, now the costumes make since. Punches in face. The mouse hath broketh out of its quiet little business suit in exchange for Wonder Woman. And I absolutely loved it. The organization started with a man in Africa seeing a metal hand that they made for a cosplay event. He asked if they could help make him a hand which started probably the busiest but most fruitful of adventures for them. They shared of all the beginning models and how now many people from all over have started helping others with limb differences. They are even beginning to design prosthetic legs with their 3-D printers. The best part is, they made sure that the design is free for others to use. Meaning they don’t profit anything from of the design being used. Now others can improve the design and those in need have access. Some of the things that have stopped E-Nable from lending their “Helping Hands” is things like governments of other countries holding their supplies at an extra cost just because they know it’s needed. Also, it’s pretty difficult to design a custom prosthetic for someone halfway across the world. No matter the obstacle, these super heroes (and villains when they dress appropriately) continue to move the 3-D printing world forward and help those in need. Find out more about the organization here: http://enablingthefuture.org/

Women’s Round-table

Now when I selected this class, I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that we were going to hear from some very successful women. For me, I selected this class to go past my comfort zone. I’m the girl that has always gotten along with guys easier. Maybe it’s because I grew up with brothers and I feel I can relate. Perhaps it’s because more often than not, women tend to assume I am (insert derogatory term women use towards women they don’t know or like) simply by looking at me. What I did know, was if I was going to test the limits, No Barriers Summit was the safest place for me to be out of my comfort zone.

This class was moderated by the lovely Tonya Dalton, founder of Inkwell Press. She was the one I wanted to speak to from the very beginning no matter how interesting the other panelists were. Why? Because the woman has it together, and I don’t always. Ha! No really, Inkwell Press is about organizing and prioritizing. We walk/roll into the room, there are all abilities at this event, and the first thing on the table is a simple outline to fill out. “Your Ideal Day.” We closed our eyes and thought to ourselves how our perfect day would be. What would we do, or not do? Who was there, or not there? In the end, my day looked very simple, lacked social media, and was nothing like it is now. I’ve got some work to do to get to that but it’s all a process. She moderated the lovely ladies that sat in cream leather chairs. Beautiful faces, smiling. All different from one another.

First was Marshawn Evans Daniels, a woman who started with humble beginnings but who would rise higher than most. She went on the be lawyer, a finalist on Miss America, and a competitor on the hit show The Apprentice. She described how she use to be a lawyer for professional athletes and how she was treated as a woman and a black woman. She gave us insight on how dedicated she was in her schooling and other aspects in life and how at times she wasn’t quite where she wanted to be. She was a people pleaser, which I can relate to. It gets you nowhere and only pushes you further from your goals. She was even set to be married and the day before, she found out he had been cheating on her. Naturally she was heartbroken. She had dropped her goals for this person and suddenly she was lost. A woman who was so accomplished was just stuck. She had to renew her thinking and stop living for others so much and live for herself. Happily, she proclaimed she has found the love of her life and that they had been married. Throughout her struggles, she kept to her beliefs and coaches others how to do what they need to succeed.

Then we have Sarah Herron, an absolutely gorgeous woman who lifts the room with her smile. She was the first woman with a disability to be on the hit TV show The Bachelor. More importantly is the non-profit she created called SheLift. Their mission is as follows: “SheLift is a 501 (c)3 organization that empowers girls with physical differences to improve self-acceptance and confidence through outdoor adventures and body-positive mentorship. SheLift provides experiences to young women with disabilities to help them live authentic lives and connect with others. SheLift aims to normalize differences while developing, challenging, and nurturing girls’ physical and emotional abilities.” Sarah may not have found love on the Bachelor, but she did find love for herself. She had to break down the barriers she placed on herself mentally and find that she is worthy of happiness. Now, she spreads this mission to other girls and women with limb differences and the impact is amazing. Check out the website for more info: http://www.shelift.org/

The next was another one of my favorite moments on this trip. It’s one of my favorites because she was keynote speaker that was breaking barriers simply by sitting in front of a room full of people. Dorothy Beal is the creator of I Run This Body. She has utilized running as a form of healing in her life and spreads that to others. Dorothy describes once having anxiety so bad that she couldn’t even walk into her school cafeteria. As she’s speaking, you can feel her heart pounding halfway across the room. She mentions how nervous she was having to follow after Sarah and Marshawn but I feel she turned the nervous energy into a form of raw emotion that the others in the room could relate to. She has accomplished 36 marathons and I feel that number will only increase as she grows with this life. I absolutely loved being a part of a growing moment for her, another opportunity to break down her barriers and fears. She is stronger with each experience.

Twerk With Whatcha Got

Oh yes. That’s right. We made it to the twerking portion. Introducing my third class. No Barriers Dance led by Whitney Way Thore from TLC’s My Big Fat Fabulous Life. I mean, I’m not the worst dancer in the world, but I am missing a leg and parts of me have never moved great for choreographed music. But hey! Who cares? Not me, and certainly not Whitney. This wonderful woman is full of life and finally to the point where she just doesn’t care what people think about her anymore. After years of people making fun of her for being overweight and applauding her for losing weight, even if in unhealthy ways, Whitney decided to take back her life and her love for dancing. The woman can move! She conducted an all-abilities dance class on the pier of The Intrepid where the event was held. People in wheelchairs, missing limbs, veterans with PTSD, and even guide dogs took part in letting loose and shakin’ what their mommas gave them. There was no excuse to attempt to dance, and I have to say I saw a ton of smiles out there. And yes, we learned to twerk. I even got to see a video of us all posted on Whitney’s Instagram page getting our groove on. I haven’t decided if it was a good or bad choice that I wore bright pink and booty shorts that day. I was either extremely prepared to twerk or extremely ready to break past my own uncomfortable barriers. Most likely the latter but I’m going to pretend I planned it all out. The only disappointment with this was the general public being close minded. I saw a lady on Instagram comment on the video to Whitney to cover her stomach. Boy was she barking up the wrong tree. Whitney’s fans, myself included, all defended her right to be big and beautiful just the way she is. The theme with this event just keeps growing. No Barriers, there’s nothing standing in your way if you allow yourself to move past it. Follow Whitney’s journey here: https://www.instagram.com/whitneywaythore/?hl=en

Questival Task: Sing an Italian Opera outside Carnegie Hall. Nailed it! Well, we did it our way at least. Haha

The Scavenger Hunt of a Lifetime

The Cotopaxi Questival was literally a scavenger hunt set all over New York City. Its purpose? To break the barriers you place on yourself and the barriers that others place on you. There were 300 tasks to complete, each giving a varied amount of points based on the difficulty of the task. We were to create a team of random people at the event and come together to achieve these tasks. They ranged from simple tasks like Following the No Barrier social media pages to shaking the hand of the Mayor. We didn’t get to cross that last one off, so if you know them, tell them we would love to shake hands for 6 points. We came up with the name Team Xena (which started out all women and because we don’t believe in barriers we added some good looking fellows) and we set off to conquer the big city.

We started by hugging a stranger for 15 seconds. What happened was beautiful. She agreed to hug, then about 5 seconds in, it started to feel awkward and long, but by 10 seconds, we began giggling like little school girls. For 15 seconds, we trusted each other enough to not only hug, but become comfortable enough to share laughter. Later, Karl joined the group and hugged Amy who he had not met yet and it was just as heartwarming as the first time.

Questival Task: Make a stranger laugh, in this case a bus full of them.

Next, we opened the door for a stranger while paying them a compliment. A very simple gesture that goes a very long way. After that, we just started going down the list and picking out things that interested us as a group. Some were as easy as taking a picture of a ghost, others as fulfilling as making strangers laugh. Enter the “bus of handsome gay men,” as they called themselves, on the way to a bachelor party. We started looking at the bus because we needed a form of public transit on our list, then we learned it was a private party. I wasn’t sure how I was going to make a bus full of strangers laugh but I didn’t really have anything to lose. I hopped on the bus and we giggled and laughed for no particular reason, and off they went to celebrate life with one another. We eventually checked off the public transit task with a carriage ride in Central Park and a challenging adventure in the subways.

20181006_111628.jpg
 Eight bodies, and two wheelchairs crammed in a subway elevator, Rachel is the only one you can’t see.

Eight bodies, and two wheelchairs crammed in a subway elevator, Rachel is the only one you can’t see.

Questival Task: Squat the biggest pumpkin you can find.

While we were in Central Park we jumped in a pile of leaves as the Questival called for, granted we borrowed a bag from a groundskeeper and teammate Allison informed me I was probably jumping in dog urine, but it counted. Another one was squatting the biggest pumpkin we could find! FYI, there may be worms underneath.

We also had to hug the state tree which we learned was the Sugar Maple. Gina took on this task. We found one, and while walking over, her entire trip turned upside down, in a good way. She came on this trip searching for something, and later learned that what she was searching for was herself. She lost a lot of loved ones at once in a short amount of time, and you could tell she had a shell to break underneath her warm smile and boisterous laugh. While walking over to the massive Sugar Maple for a hefty hug, we were just chitchatting. I told her that I had lost a lot in a short period of time too. In less than five years, I lost my brother, my mother-in-law, my leg, my marriage, my own mother and more. She broke down in tears and said she wasn’t alone, that I had lost so much too. I embraced her in a hug next to our giant tree and told her “Of course! We all have loss.” I’m kind of curious what our teammates were thinking as they were walking up to this scene, and even more so the passersby that witnessed two women sob before hugging a tree. Let’s be honest, it’s New York, no one noticed. Ha. But seriously, it was something that she needed, and it started by an adventure with like minded people.

 Gina hugs a the New York State tree, the Sugar Maple, to cross off a Questival task

Gina hugs a the New York State tree, the Sugar Maple, to cross off a Questival task

Other tasks were picking up 50 cigarette butts in a park then making a Smokey The Bear PSA which my friend Rachel nailed.

 Fifty cigarette butts picked up for a park and thrown away.

Fifty cigarette butts picked up for a park and thrown away.

 The sight where The Twin Towers once stood.

The sight where The Twin Towers once stood.

We ventured to Brooklyn via subway and found our way to Ground Zero. You can feel the energy, the heartbreak that everyone else standing there feels, the loss. People stood there and remembered. I remembered. I thought back to the words I heard from Chef Michael Lomonaco the day before and applied that emotion to attempt to understand what it must have been like. I also spoke with an Uber driver that shared his experience. I asked him how long he had been in New York, and he said “I’m a New Yorker”, that he had been there for 26 years and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I asked him what his favorite thing about the city was to which he replied that there were many. I told him he had to pick one, the one thing that if it were gone, a part of his heart would go with it. Without hesitation he told me that it was already gone. That September 11th was the last time he got to see it. Every day he drove by the Twin Towers and after that, he had something missing in his life. He recalled the stampeding of people and that for 105 streets he had to drive at a crawl because only one bridge was open. Again with the tears, choking them back. It was beautiful to speak with a complete stranger and feel so connected for that moment. The whole Questival Experience was like this. Life changing.

Barriers Are Real

 Packed like sardines in the subway car.

Packed like sardines in the subway car.

We encountered quite a few barriers on this trip. Some of them due to New York City not being the most ADA compliant, while others were social barriers or mental barriers. When it came to the Questival, traveling with two wheelchairs and over half marathon of walking was difficult. The Subway had one train that was accessible so we had to wait for a specific one. When it arrived, the first time, it was packed like sardines and there was no way we could possibly fit the two chairs and eight bodies in there. Once another train came, it was also packed. Somehow we eventually managed to squeeze in two separate cars. Subways have a weird culture to me. Nobody wants to be there and looking at a stranger is like taboo. Speaking to one is like the end of the world. Yet somehow, knowing these unspoken rules, everyone felt it was acceptable to stare at us for making them uncomfortable and taking up space. I had a girl stare me down for three stops. Eventually I just smiled and offered her a seat which she hesitantly took.

Questival Task: Give someone a piggyback ride. Karl gives Alison a piggyback ride in a new way.

Then, walking the crosswalks was another issue. Particularly near a roundabout by Central Park. The crosswalk didn’t line up on the opposite side of the street. We had to walk more in traffic then have a cab driver move off the ramp. We weren’t there to be Negative Nancy’s though. We just proceeded with caution and kindly asked for people to accommodate to what was rightfully in place. Everyone has something going on in life, so let’s be kind. When it came to social barriers, I had a particularly difficult time with the task of having a stranger race me. I asked one kid and he said he only races for money, another said he was too tired. I joked that they were afraid to get beat by a girl with one leg. They either just noticed it, or confirmed my claim. Eventually we went to Central Park to find runners, where we still got turned down a few times until finally we had a taker. I personally had to break some mental barriers after getting turned down so many times, and I was glad we persisted. It was worth every second of it.

 Ice T speaking at the No Barriers Concert with an ASL interpreter in the background.

Ice T speaking at the No Barriers Concert with an ASL interpreter in the background.

 Robbie Wilde, a deaf DJ, performing at the No Barriers Concert in Central Park.

Robbie Wilde, a deaf DJ, performing at the No Barriers Concert in Central Park.

At the concert, we got to see another side of barriers though. That they are very real, but also that you have the power to make them obsolete. We saw performances from Mandy Harvey, a deaf singer, with a voice like a sultry angel if that’s even a thing, who almost won America’s Got Talent. Robbie Wilde, a deaf DJ tore up the stage like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and Erik Weihenmeyer, one of the founders of No Barriers, brought me to more tears with his speech. Ice T was like the MC for the evening and even shared his story about adversities. You can learn more about Mandy, Robbie, and Erik here

https://mandyharveymusic.com/

https://www.nobarriersusa.org/people/robbie-wilde/

https://erikweihenmayer.com/

What I Took Home

This event was simply amazing. Whether it was a journey to find oneself or the amazing entertainment at the concert the last night, it changes you. It doesn’t just tell you how to break down barriers, anyone can give you that advice, but it shows you how. It teaches you how to actually apply the No Barriers lifestyle. That it’s okay to try new things and for goodness sake to actually engage with people. There are still going to be barriers in life, but you have people that have been through life as well that you can lean on. Nobody said you have to do it alone. Reach out and engage with people, you never know what they’ve been through if you don’t ask. They just might be able to give you the insight you have been needing in your own life.

A Special Thanks

Thank you to Erik Weihenmeyer and No Barriers for selecting me as a 2018 Reach scholarship recipient. Without the scholarship, I would not have been able to attend. Thank you to Trey Currid, who is my boss but more like the brother I never got to argue with growing up. You make me do things, like blog… which you might regret now. Thank you to my teammates for allowing me to do all sorts of shenanigans in New York City, it’s so much better when you’re not weird by yourself. And finally, thank you to all the internet trolls out there, because without you shooting my first blog attempt down three years ago, I wouldn’t be here to say I really don’t care anymore. NO BARRIERS!

Written by Caitlin Conner

 Caitlin holding a No Barriers flag with a leg wrapped around a stair rail with an “I just don’t care face".”

Caitlin holding a No Barriers flag with a leg wrapped around a stair rail with an “I just don’t care face".”