Our C-U Women Outdoors series is all about highlighting the women in our local RuggedOutdoors community who are passionate about the outdoors. Meet Amy Armstrong, a community advocate and through volunteerism she works to increase awareness of disability issues.
Name: Amy Armstrong
Occupation: Business Manager at Chambanamoms.com
Amy Armstrong is a community advocate and through volunteerism she works to increase awareness of disability issues. Amy is a dedicated mother of four children. It was with the birth of her daughter Larkin who was born with Down syndrome and further diagnosis of catastrophic epilepsy that Amy found her passion for helping families and individuals navigate the complex world of disability. She is the driving force behind Larkin’s Place, the foundation of the Stephens Family YMCA and a fully inclusive recreational facility designed to support individuals and families dealing with life-changing diagnosis or disabilities. Amy lives with her husband Andrew in Champaign and prides herself on her kitten-herding skills of one son Chase, Larkin, and twins Brin and Erin.
What does the “outdoors” mean to you?
I find peace and freedom to let go of the everyday pressures and stress in my own backyard and in sports/hiking opportunities in nature.
If the weather is nice on a Saturday, what can we find you doing?
You will most likely find me on a tennis court or golfing.
You are an advocate for inclusivity in fitness spaces and began Larkin’s Place at Stephens Family YMCA. Can you tell us a little more about your story and why inclusivity is so close to your heart?
I’m passionate about inclusion across settings but it was with Larkin’s birth that I began to find recreational opportunities limited by access or mindset of the person/entity running programs. How does the child or family with mobility issues get to the water slide? How does the child/family needing programmatic support find access to that without having to navigate multi tiered systems. Larkin was enrolled in a music program but the transitions and music were too fast. I asked if the program could be slowed down and then she would find success as would her peers AND friends would be gained but I was told no. It was really frustrating to me that here was a group that should be adaptive and it wasn’t. I set out to change that for others and today the Y offers inclusive opportunities as well as programs that are set aside for those who would like to start at a slower pace and the Y foundation and mindset is open to suggestions and growth.
How can outdoor spaces like parks and hiking trails be more inclusive and welcoming for their communities, no matter a person’s abilities?
This is a great question! Paved areas that lead to accessible play equipment. ADA requires access but it doesn’t mean there is meaningful engagement or equipment for children and families. Playing together is one of the very best ways to create friendships and lifelong relationships!! Wood chips while inexpensive are prohibitive to those with mobility and sensory issues — and it’s hard to find a playground without them. Poured surfaces, additional markings for those with visual impairments, equipment that is accessible, and leaving items such as wheelchairs, crutches, and walkers as items for kids to touch/feel and use will help make them less stigmas and more just a part of life.
When did you decide that you wanted to be involved with the Unit 4 School board?
I was recruited to run for the board by a few different community members and I repeatedly said no because frankly I’m not a politician. The thought of running for an elected position was off putting but a few of the individuals promised to walk me through it and help me so that obstacle was mitigated but I was and still am uncomfortable with my name on a yard sign. I have advocated in our schools for a long time and the issue of facilities was crushing us as a community. The lack of ADA compliance at South Side, Dr. Howard, and Centennial made me so upset that I had to do something to bring it to the attention of our greater community. South Side was our proximity school but my child couldn’t attend there due to lack of access. Parent teacher conferences were being held outside for parents with mobility issues not to mention the lack of opportunity for any staff member who might want to teach or work at these campuses if they had mobility disabilities. Thanks to taxpayers, Unit 4 is now overhauling multiple campuses to create accessible, safe and larger spaces for ALL students and staff.
With your involvement in the community and Champaign School District, what do you see as the biggest hurdle facing children’s activity levels today?
Transportation and cost are two of the largest hurdles I see. The Y and our Park Districts offer scholarships but then we still have transportation issues however I am seeing potential efforts to address marginalized neighborhoods and areas in collaborative ideas and partnerships forming. Stay tuned. : )
Any simple tips for parents and families looking to find more time to get outside and be active together?
Families are so busy being busy we forget to stop and just take a walk or a bike ride. Even if it’s just 5-10 minutes of outside time, it’s amazing how my kids will open up and start talking to me if I’m quiet and let them set the pace of conversation because that often leads to them setting the pace for a much longer walk and time together. I learn a lot in these spaces and the exercise is a bonus recharge to tackle another day.
Are there any other outdoor activities that you and your family enjoy in your free time?
We play a lot of golf and tennis as a family. My twins both swim and dive so a ton of my summer time is spent judging, timing, announcing, or running a meet. I’ve learned so much about sporting events and what it takes to run them as a parent volunteer!! We enjoy this time together learning new skills and helping them be good teammates.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
I have so many mentors that I reach to for advice on various topics that I am hard pressed to isolate it to just one piece. There are two that stick out in my memory; From Dr. Malcolm Hill: “Enjoy your baby and stop thinking about therapy all the time.” Also, from my grandmother when I asked her how she could stand being married to my grandfather for 72 years: “Well honey, he has to stand me too.” That is a life lesson of tolerance and acceptance.
What’s at the top of your bucket list?
I don’t really have a bucket list. I try to push myself physically and mentally every single day to do things that I know my daughter Larkin will never be able to do. Learn something new and see things from another lens. I hiked the Grand Canyon and wrote her name in sand under a large rock formation as a symbolic gesture of being in places her body won’t take her. She can’t but I can therefore I should and will. Our next girl trip of hiking is being planned for Zion National Park and I can’t wait!!
Is there anything you're working on that you're most excited about right now?
I’m excited about the process for a strategic plan for Unit 4 being implemented along with a complete revision of current policies to bring them up to date and align with District goals. My passion for individuals with disabilities and marginalized families has been given new spark with the latest strategic planning and community discussions with the Y and Larkin’s Place and how we can expand our impact in the county. I’m excited for the future of our community!