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For 10 years, Spirit Challenge has given people with disabilities the chance to learn new skills and experience an ancient sport.

Through the efforts of community groups and volunteers, Spirit Challenge gives participants with developmental disabilities the opportunity to take part in the Toronto International Dragon Boat Festival.

This year, Spirit Challenge Dragon Boat had 144 participants at the festival. Staff, volunteers and participants practiced for several weeks leading up to the dragon boat races, which took place June 22 on Centre Island in Toronto.

Dragon boat racing, which began more than 2000 years ago in China, is an inclusive activity for people of all abilities. Paddling is easy to learn and, because participants are seated, the sport may more readily accommodate people with mobility disabilities, according to Spirit Challenge committee chair Kerri-Jean Winteler.

There is a variety of sensory cues to guide participants, including the beat of the drummer who sits at the stern of the boat to help paddlers stay synchronized. Dragon boats, which have a carved dragon head at the bow and a tail at the stern, are a colourful display for those in the boats and on shore.

"The event is very unifying," says Winteler. "Everybody is equal — staff, volunteers and participants, who have disabilities, are working together towards a common goal."

Spirit Challenge has been a steady presence at the Toronto International Dragon Boat Festival since 1999. Volunteers and participants from the following organizations took part in Spirit Challenge this year:

  • Christian Horizons
  • Meta Centre
  • Vita Community Living Services
  • New Visions Toronto
  • Surrey Place Centre
  • Spirit of Life
  • Kerry's Place
  • Toronto Parks Forestry and Recreation
  • Toronto Youth Ambassadors
  • Salvation Army Booth Industries

Spirit Challenge was also supported by the Toronto Chinese Business Association and the National Dragonboat Club, as well as the financial support of Atlantic (HS) Financial Corporation.