For disabled travelers: Able Trek Tours

travelersThis is the final part of a series about efforts that address the challenges of traveling with a disability.

Even an average Wednesday draws 600 people to a spring matinee at The Fireside Dinner Theatre, Fort Atkinson, and in the audience are many customers who arrive by bus. That’s the case at my table of 12, where the outing begins with a fancy lunch, and almost everybody orders chocolate milk.

Some of us drain our glasses before the arrival of salad – a neat mix of greens with bits of bacon, beets, corn, cucumber, tomato and crunchy fried onion. Almost everybody earns dessert (cherry crisp a la mode) because we easily clean our plates of chicken schnitzel.

Conversation is friendly, direct and includes anybody who feels like talking.

“Are you happy?” asks Lisa Carpenter of Appleton.

“Uh-huh,” responds Nancy Parker of Marinette, who is not compelled to elaborate.

The women, who became pen pals because of these trips, made shopping a priority before settling in for this meal. One bought an Elvis lunchbox. The other looked for something scary; she likes snakes and horror movies.

Lisa and Nancy got to know each other because of Able Trek Tours, which since 1992 has arranged vacations for people who need help when traveling. Clients include the developmentally disabled, mentally ill, elderly and others. The ratio is one staff member or trained volunteer for every three or four travelers.

These outings began with an overnight near Chicago, to Six Flags Great America, and 61 people took 14 Able Trek trips before 1992 ended. Twenty years later, 965 travelers took 46 trips; destinations were domestic and international.

“I felt there was a strong need to offer more” than Wisconsin Badger Camp activities provided to the developmentally disabled, explains Don Douglas, the camp’s former director and Able Trek’s founder. He also has a 27-year-old adopted daughter who is severely disabled.

“We all like to experience something new,” he says, but group travel options for this population were limited and challenging. So was Don’s work to establish Able Trek; for a while he also worked part time as a carpenter, fundraiser and bus driver.

Now vans and 56-passenger buses pick up special needs customers in much of Wisconsin, northern Illinois and Dubuque, Iowa. Able Trek’s support crew includes at least 300 trained volunteers, who gain a free getaway in exchange for assisting travelers with personal care, medication management, cutting food and other tasks.

“We have some retired nurses as volunteers, but we don’t guarantee that a professional health care worker will be on our trips,” Don says. Staff and volunteers complete first aid training; people who need more might travel with their own helper.

Vehicles accommodate wheelchair travelers. People with behavior issues might be turned away, for the safety of the group.

Able Trek heads to Wisconsin’s waterparks, Iowa’s Amana Colonies, Disney attractions in Florida, Broadway shows in New York, the Alps of Austria, a cruise in the Caribbean, pro baseball and football games.

“We’ve had staff and travelers fly in to participate in our trips,” Don says. Trips abroad might involve only two or three special needs travelers, plus staff; they typically become part of a larger tour group at the foreign destination.

For the Fireside Theatre trip, one bus made passenger pick-ups from Dubuque to Madison. The other’s route included Appleton and Milwaukee.

“For the rest of my life, I’ll be a part of Able Trek,” says Jayme Roller of Endeavor. “The people who travel are friendly and happy.” She is a stay-at-home mom and former Able Trek office secretary who travels with the company monthly.

“It’s a lot of fun, and it’s satisfying,” says Chris Pritzl of Kenosha. Free travel is a bonus: This two-year Able Trek volunteer and foster parent has accompanied groups to St. Louis, Minneapolis and Branson, Mo.

Frequent Able Trek travelers refer to Mary Lou Davis of Madison as “mom” or “grandma” because of the above-and-beyond care that she demonstrates. That includes making ham spread and chicken noodle soup for annual fishing trips.

“I’m not ready to sit at home and just look at four walls,” says the retiree, whose Able Trek work began at least 10 years ago.

For more about Able Trek Tours: abletrektours.com, 800-205-6713. The cost depends upon the destination (a Wisconsin State Fair day trip costs $120; a nine-day Hawaii trip starts at $3,195). Although the company already has many volunteers, “we always have our doors open and never turn away good people,” says founder Don Douglas.

Day trips for the general public, who are picked up with a 35-mile radius of Reedsburg, also are arranged. Buses are available as private-group charters.

For more about The Fireside Theatre, 1131 Janesville Ave., Fort Atkinson: firesidetheatre.com, 800-477-9505. Remaining 2013 musical productions are “The Witnesses: Seeing is Believing” (a Christian theme), July 17-21; “Run for Your Wife,” July 25 to Sept. 1; “Once Upon a Mattress,” Sept. 5 to Oct. 27; and “A Fireside Christmas,” Oct. 31 to Dec. 22.

Serving the Milwaukee area is Going Beyond Travel, whose owners (Pam and Monty Hunt of Mequon) since 1995 have arranged trips for adults with developmental disabilities. Offerings are a mix of day trips and overnights; almost all are in the Midwest. One staff member accompanies every four to eight clients. For more: goingbeyondtravel.com, 262-512-1252.

For more about Wisconsin Badger Camp, based in Prairie du Chien: badgercamp.org, 608-988-4558. The specialized camp began in 1966 as Southwest Badger Camp.