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Parents find ways to explore with physically-challenged son

The Donahue family of Jenn, Josh and their son Owen. (By Blake Sebring of News-Sentinel.com)

As Josh Donahue was growing up in Fort Wayne and Angola, he loved spending time outdoors, hiking, camping and traveling. Instead of going on vacations, he liked to say he went on adventures.

And then he met his wife-to-be Jenn in 2003, and she loved camping and caught his love of adventure. They spent their honeymoon in a land-locked cottage in Canada, exploring with a motorboat for a week.

When their son Owen was born with cerebral palsy six years ago, their greatest adventure began. They wondered if their ability to go on outdoors trips as a family was at an end as maneuverability was limited because of the limitations of Owen’s health. They were able to take short camping trips, but the longer treks were problematic. Then they got a break.

Last spring they were shopping at Kroger’s at the Village of Coventry when Josh recognized some people from the website “We Carry Kevan,” a group of friends who have developed a backpack which allowed them to carry their friend who suffers from Spinal Muscular Atrophy. The seven friends spent three weeks touring Europe by carrying Kevan Chandler in a backpack.

The Donahues were hoping for a hiking trip though some national parks in Colorado, and Chandler helped by giving them a specialized backpack which allows Josh to carry Owen. The Donahues were already considering using a TrailRider, a specially designed designed wilderness access vehicle, and visited New Hampshire to try one out.

With help from a TrailRider, the Donahues were able to take a family tour through Colorado this summer. (Courtesy photo)

“I tried the backpack that he used to go to Europe after he fitted and did some adjustments,” Josh said.” We met Kevan at the Disability Expo, and I carried Owen around for about an hour. Kevan made some more modifications to the backpack, and we felt comfortable with it. I’ve done a lot of backpacking in my life where I go out for days carrying everything I need on my back.”

A first grader at Haverhill Elementary, Owen weighs about 50 pounds and the backpack weighed slightly less than 10. It was manageable with stops for rest. On average, the family walked three or four miles a day with Owen in the backpack.

The backpack allowed the Donahues to do their favorite thing, which is find out what they can do rather than what they can’t with Owen. They used the opportunity to introduce him to the things they love, such as a two-week trip to Colorado in June. The backpack gave Owen and his family freedom.

“I think he gets a lot of the experiences that every kid wants,” Josh said. “That’s all we’re trying to do. I would think any kid wants to do that stuff.”

Owen absolutely loved it as the family visited Devil’s Head Lookout, Garden of the Gods, Pike’s Peak, Aspen and Rocky Mountain National Park. Hiking buddy Doug Melander joined the Donahues halfway through the trip and quickly earned the right to be called “Uncle Doug” by Owen who always wanted to keep moving upward. His smile lit up the national park scenery. The trip up Devil’s Head Lookout took three hours, sometimes with stops every five minutes.

Owen, 6, was born with cerebral palsy. (Courtesy photo)

“On this trip we wanted to do as much as we could,” Jenn said. “We like to do these things to show him that there are no limits, and he’s kind of already got that attitude anyway. He loves the outdoors and camping, but at the end of the trip he was ready to go home because he missed his cats.”

Josh has a list of dozens of places he’d like to go to, but that schedule may have to work around some tournaments. Owen was recently introduced to power soccer at Turnstone and loves it. He can’t wait to play the next time.

“You could see the first power soccer game he went to, his eyes just lit up,” Jenn said. “They are in chairs like he is, and he’s able to connect with people like himself.”

Though they would recommend the Colorado trip to anyone, Josh said it’s doubtful the Donahues go back any time soon because they have so many other places they’d like to visit, such as Arizona, Nova Scotia, Yellowstone and New York City. New York City is likely up next because Owen loves big cities.

“He loved Chicago because of the trains, the people, the buildings, the food and he loves to go out and eat, all that stuff,” Josh said. “We want to do what he wants.”

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