JoLt 1994 – Alaska Along the Route of the Goldrush
The icy cold water crashed over their heads. Their screams could be heard above the sound of the waves; but the screams were the sounds of excitement, exhilaration and happiness, tinged perhaps with some fear, as they white water rafted down the Denali River in Alaska. Who were they, this motley group of disabled, ill, abused and neglected teenagers?
They were a remarkable group: A boy who inherited cancer of the eyes which had to be removed; another whose eyesight was deteriorating and which will lead to complete blindness; a girl with Cerebral Palsy and a cleft palate for which she had endured numerous operations; another girl with mild Cerebral Palsy who had recently recovered from a virus which had left her with arthritis; a boy who, in 1992, was viciously attacked in an alley way and left deeply unconscious with appalling head injuries and who, although he had taught himself to walk again, was still struggling to regain his power of speech.
There was a young woman confined to a wheelchair with spina bifida, who loved nothing more than a joke and a good gossip; another chatterbox was a girl who was receiving extensive hospital treatment for cancer of the leg and lungs; two girls and a boy with very poor sight, one of whom, despite her deteriorating vision helps look after children with learning difficulties; a boy born with a very severe cleft lip and palate; a deaf boy and girl who were assiduous in their attention to others; a tall boy with cerebral palsy with an infectious yet mischievous sense of humour; a girl with right hemiparesis giving her a limp and limited use of her right hand; another who suffers from Friedreich’s Ataxia and now almost totally confined to a wheelchair with a short life expectancy; a bubbly girl who suffers from an extremely painful inflammatory disease affecting the blood vessels, called Poly Arthritis Nodosa and a boy who, in addition to congenital heart disease was born with a physical disability not unlike Thalidomide. The others, though physically able, had experienced long histories of severe neglect, repeated rejection and emotional, verbal, physical and in several cases sexual abuse.
They were accompanied by six adults (including a doctor) as they made their 4000 mile overland journey along the Route of the Gold Rush from Los Angeles to Alaska.
Their journey had started in early July. Many strange and varied experiences followed thick and fast: Sleeping on the elegantly furnished Queen Mary; discovering some of the secrets of movie production at Paramount Studios; the scorching heat of the Arizona Desert; the sheer size and beauty of the Grand Canyon (with memories of a very bumpy flight over the Canyon in very small aircrafts); the glamour, lights and brashness of Las Vegas; hot desert giving way to beautiful snow-capped mountains and then the Golden Gate Bridge barely visible in the fog.
A plane journey to Vancouver brought them closer to their final destination – Alaska. Here they went dragon boating, played volley ball and other sport in Stanley Park, slept with the Beluga Whales, and enjoyed graciously living aboard a luxury cruiser. Feeling gloriously refreshed and hungry for more adventures, the group headed North by train, through the stunning wilderness of British Columbia to the Northern City of Prince George. Accommodation now was mainly on floors – in school halls, community centres, ferry decks, church halls etc. Northwards and onwards, the aptly named Alaska Ferry took the group through the Inside Passage from Prince Rupert to Juneau, Capital of America’s 49th State. The beauty of the coastline simply defying description. One of the group celebrated her 18th Birthday by flying by helicopter from Juneau to Haines and stopping on the way to walk on a most beautiful glacier.
Then from the Panhandle of Alaska back briefly into Canada and the Klondike, to the Yukon where the group travelled further into the wilderness to stay with the First Nation People. Camp was set up near a creek which provided fish for food as well as the washing facilities for the group. They listened to stories told by the Elders which had been passed down from generation to generation. They learnt to distinguish what was edible in the wilderness from what was not. They learnt to cook and to make primitive jewellery and, at night, when it turned bitterly cold, they huddled round the fire and cuddled together under canvas to try to keep warm. In the mornings, the water left in bowls was frozen solid and no one seemed to linger over washing in the icy waters of the creek. The kindness of their First Nation friends helped bind the group together and make them into team that achieved much by supporting, helping and encouraging each other.
In a journey crammed with highlights, one of the most memorable will undoubtedly be the harsh, beautiful immensity of Alaska with a landscape teeming with an infinite variety of wildlife. On one occasion, the group pulled into a lay-by for a coffee break, only to find a sleepy porcupine and grazing caribou behind the bushes. Other discoveries included: moose, black bears, salmon, killer whales, sea otters and rare bald eagles. The sighting of the bears was a spectacular and rare event – it happened as the group was riding high in powered speed boats up a shallow and very fast flowing river, when a female black bear was spotted with two cubs raiding a small camp for food. They watched enthralled as the bear managed to reach the food that had been placed in plastic bags and hung from a tree.
For many the most lasting memory will be the kindness and generosity of so many people throughout their long journey. Sadly far too many to mention in this short report.
The youngsters shared experiences helped to knit them into a close, supportive group. For the first time, many of the young people were able to talk about painful, unhappy experiences and gradually come to terms with situations that had previously left them feeling ashamed and worthless. Frustration and unhappiness at learning to live with physical disabilities or medical problems were faced. Friendship problems arose occasionally but were usually soon resolved. One or two youngsters initially had problems integrating into the group and needed much help. As a group they were kind and caring, and were sensitive to each other’s needs and of each other’s vulnerabilities. They remained cheerful and good natured. Confidence and feelings of self-worth began to develop and they achieved much more than we, or they ever expected. Their own problems became more bearable as they came to understand the problems faced by other members of the group. They gave each other strength and friendship. They have every reason to feel immensely proud of their achievements.
The success of the journey owes much to the teamwork, courage, good humour and personalities of the youngsters and adults who participated. We wish every happiness to the twenty-four young people who contributed so much as well as benefited so much from the journey and we hope that they will continue to be able to turn to us in times of trouble and in times of happiness.
We owe much to His Majesty King Hussein of Jordan who has continued to support our work since the JoLt Trust was founded in 1983. We are delighted that Her Majesty Queen Noor has agreed to become President of The JoLt Trust.
Without the help of many individuals, companies and charitable trusts, the 1994 “Journey of a Lifetime” would never have been possible. We are greatly indebted to them and to our many friends who have worked so hard for us. We thank you all for your support and for your friendship. Above all we thank you for caring.
Participants: Owen Bentinck, Joe Brogan, Andrew Clark, Simon Clifton, Gwerfyl Edwards, Lindsey Eldridge, David Evans, Kevin Floyd, Emma Frost, Zoë Gore, Angela Greenlees, Darren Ledgard, Anthony Littleford, Stuart Marchington, Sarah Maunder, Carrianne Mitchell, Caroline Murdoch, Kelly Pritchard, Jennifer Ratour, Ian Riley, Wayne Shears, Angela Trafford, Susan Whatling, Carl Willingham.
Leaders: Dorothy Dalton, Claire Walford, Alan Buzza, Grant Close, Richard Walker, John Maidens.