Adventure mission

Able Africa empowers disabled Christians

Unique program combines mission work and adventure travel.

By Bethanie Hestermann

The Orange River Challenge was the adventure of Brian Gray’s lifetime. The rafting excursion down South Africa’s longest river, in which Gray and his group of 17 encountered 90 kilometers of white water over the course of five days, was something he had never experienced before. In fact, before the 2005 trip Gray never hoped to, because he is a paraplegic. Even more amazing, Gray was not the only unique member of the group; it also contained five visually impaired members and a quadriplegic.

This very expedition led by Mandy Rapson, an employee of African Encounter which facilitates Christian mission trips to Southern and Eastern Africa under a sector called ACTS, blossomed into Able Africa, a new arm of the company that specializes in trips for disabled Christians and groups with mixed abilities.

The program is unique on two levels: It offers disabled (and able-bodied) adventurers the opportunity to combine mission work and adventure travel or sightseeing, and it seeks to uplift the local disabled community in Cape Town, South Africa.

“It’s about doing something different and giving people the opportunity to do what would otherwise not be possible,” Rapson says. “I want people to reach out of their comfort zones and learn to overcome the obstacles in their lives, whatever they may be.”

Connections empower and uplift

Past Able Africa volunteers have worked in a home for people with spinal injuries, engaging in the mental and physical stimulation of residents who otherwise receive little interaction. Rapson says this stimulation involves cognitive activities such as reading, playing checkers, chess or cards, and initiating games such as painting, bowling, song and dance that involve fine and gross motor skills.

“African Encounter and ACTS have also been involved in various disabled projects because of the great need in this area,” says Rapson. “Some projects include teaching mentally disabled children, supporting child welfare and computer literacy programs, assisting at the local crèche and visiting long-term patients in the township hospital.”

Rapson says when volunteers come to South Africa to interact with, learn from and love these individuals, it makes them feel important — and shows them there is no such thing as an insignificant life.

“Self pride and self respect encroach upon them like a blanket,” she says. “And that blanket is the love of God shared with them through their visitors.”

Making a memorable mission

Able Africa also allows disabled Christians to try new, adventurous activities as a part of their trip. Quad biking, skydiving, river rafting, sailing and shark cage diving are some of the options the program offers depending on the specific abilities in a group. Other options include open-air safaris, golf and sightseeing.

A sample Cape Town outreach trip consists of 11 days, two for traveling, four for customized recreation and five for community service and outreaches, also customizable depending on the group’s strengths.

Transportation and accommodations are designed to support all levels of ability. Ten percent of proceeds are automatically donated to sustaining initiatives for the disabled throughout Africa.

Gray says he doesn’t think many people with disabilities believe a trip such as the one he participated in is possible. But, he says, Able Africa has the equipment, experienced staff and professional expertise to make it happen. “Considering my situation I had some concerns going into the trip,” Gray says, “but I was able to easily contact Mandy (Rapson) and discuss those concerns. They even arranged a ‘test run’ on a local dam to look at what adaptations I may need on the canoe.”

Darrell Gwaltney, who has led three groups and more than 60 Christians on short-term mission trips hosted by ACTS, Able Africa’s sister company, agrees. “ACTS has one of the best support systems I’ve ever experienced in thirty years of ministry and after more than a dozen mission trips,” he says.

Gwaltney especially appreciates the environment of fellowship and team building, and speaks to Rapson’s commitment, compassion and respect for other people. Thanks to their host Gwaltney says his teams always rest well, eat well, and grow closer together on a mission trip.

“Able Africa gives disabled Christians the chance to fulfill dreams, to live big, and to have a positive, sustainable impact on Africa,” Rapson says. “The ultimate goal is to give all Christians the opportunity to participate in short-term missions. To empower them to, in turn, empower others.”

Tips for preparation

Planning a mission trip for a group, especially one with mixed abilities, can be challenging. Fellowship Travel International, a travel agency with years of experience helping Christians book faith-based travel, shares the following advice.

Airlines will not allow online group bookings

Many people think individual and group bookings are the same. In fact, Web sites not only limit you to nine seats per transaction, but the airline can, and often will, cancel your seats if they see you are trying to book a group.

If you attempt to get a group through the system, you typically need to make an instant purchase and provide final names at the time of the booking, even if months in advance of the travel.

If you go through a travel agent you can usually book a group up to 11 months in advance of your return date. This also makes it more likely to secure low-cost airfare. Since the number of seats can be adjusted up until about three months prior to travel, groups can take advantage of the lower prices with minimal risk.

Pre-trip planning

Ask yourself these questions while planning your trip: Are your dates flexible? Will you need ground transportation? Will your group need international cell phones while abroad?

The more flexible you can be with dates and airport choices, the greater chance you will have to get the best possible fare. Once the group is confirmed, you should advise your agent if there are children flying, as well as any travelers with wheelchairs or other special seating requests.

Ensure that all the names you have entered online (or provided your agent) match the travelers’ passports. If they do not match exactly, travelers could be denied boarding and additional costs may be incurred.

Other reminders

An often overlooked detail to include in your travel budget is insurance. For a nominal amount you can make sure you will be able to properly care for someone if they are hurt during the trip and need to be transported to a hospital. It will protect both you and your organization.

Arrive early on the day of travel. This will help ease your delays at airport baggage and security lines, especially if your group includes persons of varied abilities.

Lastly, know your rights. U.S. passengers’ rights (including rights of passengers with reduced mobility) can be found at

— Fellowship Travel International []


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