SORRENTO, Fla. – It’s something many may take for granted: being able to walk through Florida state parks and enjoy nature.
A first-of-its-kind program in Florida is helping those with mobility impairments get around and enjoy nature trails using a track chair.
From a wheelchair to a track chair, 36-year-old Dalkin Gomez is rolling into Seminole State Forest.
“I always loved the outdoors, I used to hike before I was injured,” Gomez said.
Gomez said he was very active before a spinal cord injury on the job in 2018, that left him paralyzed from the chest down.
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“One of the first things I was taught about being in a wheelchair is that we don’t have as much accessible places to go,” Gomez said. “I was able-bodied, so I never really thought about how accessibility works until I was in this chair.”
But that’s all changing with the new tracked chair program run by the Friends of Seminole State Forest nonprofit.
“I saw this program in Colorado about four years ago and witnessed the impact it had on mobility-impaired people. To be able to enjoy the outside and listen to the birds and see the trees with their families and I called my supervisor and I said ‘Is there a tracked chair program in Florida?’ He said ‘What’s a track chair?’ and that’s when I had an idea,” said George Koutsakis, president of Friends of Seminole State Forest.
An idea to bring the first-ever tracked chair program to a forest in Florida. Through donations and sponsorships, the Friends of Seminole State Forest purchased a $15,000 track chair and trailer. It took the organization three years to bring the tracked chair program to Seminole State Forest.
“It is an all-terrain vehicle and can go over small obstacles and all that to preserve that hiking experience. It’s not a paved road, but an actual hiking trail that the chair can navigate safely,” Koutsakis said.
The program gives those with mobility impairments access to hiking trails, parks and fishing docks within the forest.
“Most of the trails were already here from the Florida Trail Association, from the hiking trails that already exist within the Seminole State Forest. We have improved some of the trails to make sure that they are track chair compatible,” Koutsakis said.
Gomez was one of the first to take the rolling hike in Sorrento.
“This makes me feel free. Just to know you can be out in the forest it’s a plus. When you’re in a regular chair it’s hard to go through the woods and this is amazing,” Gomez said.
There are also accessories to accommodate riders with complete paralysis.
“Should the rider lose control of the chair, the attendant can take control or if the rider is unable to control the chair because of total paralysis, they can still enjoy nature with a remote that can be plugged into the chair,” Koutsakis said.
“It looks like a tank,” Gomez said. “Normally in the forest with normal wheels, there’s always something in the way like rocks and hills, you also see tree roots. This thing goes through all that and you’re still steady.”
The tracked chair is available to the public for free for up to three hours, you just have to make a reservation. A program member will also accompany the rider during the hike.
“I feel so happy for them, that they can experience the same thing I’ve experienced my whole life and taken for granted. The healing restorative powers of nature,” Koutsakis said.
“Peace, that’s what this program brings,” Gomez said. “Now the goal is just to make as many people as possible come out and enjoy this chair and expand.”
Friends of Seminole State Forest are hoping to continue to raise money to purchase additional track chairs to expand the program.
One of the organization’s fundraisers is the Run for the Woods event. Runners, walkers and track chair participants can sign up for the 5k, 12k or half marathon through Seminole State Forest. The event takes place Sunday, Feb. 12 at 7:30 a.m.
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