Public Health & Recreation

Paddling the Blackstone River Offers Benefits for Adults with Intellectual, Developmental Disabilities


Paddlers on the Blackstone River during a program run by the Friends of the Blackstone for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. (Colleen Cronin/ecoRI News)

LINCOLN, R.I. — Denise Flynne’s first canoe trip on the Blackstone River earlier this summer was a dream. 

“I am not an inside body,” she said, adding that she loved the experience of “just being a part of nature” while she was on the water.

For Flynne, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, canoeing is an activity that takes some help and planning. But a new program hosted by Blackstone River Watershed Council/Friends of the Blackstone for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities is helping Flynne and others benefit from being on the river, both physically and mentally.

“This is something that she’s always wanted to do but never had the opportunity,” said Vincent Mancini, a direct support specialist at Avatar, which offers day and residential services for adults with developmental disabilities.

Mancini, who is also a board member of Friends of the Blackstone, said the program started earlier this summer. For years, the organization has been inviting members of the public to its Lincoln boathouse to sign up for Connecting with Canoes, but this year, Friends of the Blackstone added another day dedicated to adults from Avatar and West Bay RI.

“A lot of things that aren’t as accessible as we wish they would be,” Matthew Marco, a support coordinator at West Bay RI who helps run the program with Mancini, said. So far, creative problem-solving has helped them get the large group of adults to the water in canoes. Although more funding wouldn’t solve everything, it would help make the program more accessible, he said.

Each week they’ve had more and more participants join them for the paddle. 

Participants get safety and paddling tips before heading onto the Blackstone River. (Colleen Cronin/ecoRI News)

Before the paddling started during the group’s last meeting on Sept. 1, participants, staff, and volunteers stood life-jacketed around the riverbank and listened to Mancini explain safety tips and the different types of paddle strokes. 

There’s a mix of experience. A few minutes after getting on the river, a canoe ran aground in the shallows while another participant, Neil, in his own kayak, zoomed around the riverbend.

A colorful beach chair was acquired for Flynne and placed in the middle of one of the canoes and Mancini lifted her in and handed her a paddle.

Someone had brought a portable speaker/radio, and once most of the group got on the river, everyone traveled down the Blackstone River to the sound of birds and oldies rock.

The group traveled from Lincoln to the old Albion Dam and back. And while Neill Sheridan raced an ecoRI News reporter back to the boathouse, he talked about all the times he’s gone kayaking, once even coaxing his dog to come aboard one of the little boats. He said he liked to kayak because of all the wildlife he gets to see along the way, especially the fish.

Sheridan’s kayak and Denise’s canoe beat everyone else back. The group always has lunch outside to follow the big paddle, then takes a walk around the grounds before finishing out the day with a reflective talk.

Being in nature, and particularly around water, is relaxing for everyone and science supports it, said John Marsland, president of Friends of the Blackstone. One of his favorite books, called the “Blue Mind,” by Wallace J. Nichols, discusses how being “near, in, on, or under water” can be beneficial for people’s health and happiness. 

That sense of happiness and relaxation is something that the paddle participants, staff, and volunteers have all felt after going on the water, Mancini said. 

From left, Joe Tisdale, Denise Flynne and Vincent Mancini enjoy a canoe ride along the Blackstone River. (Colleen Cronin/ecoRI News)

“We’re hoping to increase the number of agencies that take part in this program because we can see benefits for everyone, not just the folks we support but also staff,” he said. “It’s just a wonderful feeling being out in nature and on the water specifically… It’s very therapeutic.” 

Mancini said that it’s also a great way for participants to make friends, learn new skills, and grow their confidence.

When Sheridan asked Mancini if he could get a volunteer job gardening and cutting the grass at the Lincoln location, Mancini replied with an emphatic, “Yes, you can!”

Colleen Cronin is a Report for America corps member who writes about environmental issues in rural Rhode Island for ecoRI News.

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  1. The Blackstone River Watershed Council/ Friends of the Blackstone should be commended for this inclusive project. They have made the effort to include marginalised people with varying abilities and skill sets who wouldn’t necessarily think they have the ability to enjoy canoeing and find a new outlet for them to explore the great outdoors. Many tbanks to all those involved in this worthwhile endeavor.

  2. Thank you very much, Roland. It’s folks like you that will change the perceptions and stereotypes surrounding people who are living with a disability.

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