For years, Vancouver resident Bob Cavanaugh wanted to learn how to ski.
Because he is visually impaired, he couldn’t head straight onto the slopes, but he dreamed of one day cruising through the soft powder of Mount Hood Meadows.
Cavanaugh’s dream came true last winter when he attended a skiing event held by the Northwest Association for Blind Athletes, a Vancouver-based nonprofit dedicated to improving quality of life for visually impaired and blind individuals through participation in sports and physical activity.
“It happened for me this year, and it was so much fun,” he said. “Now I’m hooked.”
Cavanaugh has been active with the Northwest Association for Blind Athletes since he moved to Vancouver from Edmonds two years ago. He first attended swimming events before moving on to paddleboarding and now skiing.
“I’m really enjoying my participation. It has made a huge impact on my life,” he said. “I’m signed up for paddleboarding again this June, and I can’t wait.”
Cavanaugh is one of nearly 2,000 blind or visually impaired athletes who take part in events and programs put on by the Northwest Association for Blind Athletes annually.
This year, the organization is celebrating its 15th anniversary, and it is gearing up to expand its programs substantially.
“Our target by 2030 is to serve 5,000 individuals,” said Billy Henry, founder and president of the Northwest Association for Blind Athletes. “We’re aiming to become an organization that’s about four times our size in terms of revenue to be able to get there. We have some bold ambitions.”
The organization is already the largest of its kind in the nation, according to Henry.
“We’re the national leader in what we do,” he said.
Henry founded the Northwest Association for Blind Athletes in 2007 in his parents’ garage in Hazel Dell when he was 15 years old.
As a freshman in high school, Henry wanted to participate in power-lifting competitions with his friends. But because he is visually impaired, he needed help getting started.
One day, five of Henry’s friends came over to his parents’ house to help him with power lifting. After that, his friends started coming over weekly to train. Then, he and his friends began participating in competitions together.
The experience inspired Henry to support other blind and visually impaired people reach their goals, both in sports and in life. With the help of his parents, friends and others, he founded the Northwest Association for Blind Athletes on May 5, 2007.
“Our mission is to provide life-changing opportunities through sports and physical activity to individuals who are blind or visually impaired,” Henry said. “What it’s really about is providing resources to help individuals who are blind build confidence and self-esteem, create friendships and gain skills to be successful in all areas of life.”
In its first year, the organization served six individuals in Clark County. Now, it serves some 1,700 people across Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. The organization is set to hold more than 600 in-person and virtual events this year, thanks to its 400 volunteers and 22 staff members.
“When COVID hit back in March 2020, we were able to pivot our services in about a week to be delivering virtual services,” Henry said. “Now, we’re delivering more in-person services than we were pre- COVID, plus the virtual services. That’s why we’re having a record year in terms of events delivered and individuals served.”
In March, the organization held a record-breaking auction. On May 5, there will be a 15th anniversary celebration for athletes and longtime supporters. In August, the organization will open a second office in Boise, Idaho.
“That’s a huge expansion for us,” Henry said. “We’re really scaling our impact to serve as many people as possible.”
The Northwest Association for Blind Athletes offers five programs: sports outreach, a range of sports and physical activities for people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities; Camp Spark, an overnight sports-based summer camp for youth who are blind or visually impaired; sports adaptations, an online video resource library and equipment-lending program; scholarships; and a community engagement program aimed at increasing the organization’s visibility.
Sports outreach programs include paddleboarding at Vancouver Lake, hiking along the Salmon Creek Greenway Trail, skiing at Mount Hood Meadows, tandem cycling around town and more.
“At the moment, we’re really focused on scaling up our ongoing programs and services,” Henry said.
When he founded the Northwest Association for Blind Athletes, Henry never imagined that it would grow to its current size. But as the organization expands, so do his expectations for what is possible.
“I now have a vision of it being so much larger than when we first started,” he said. “I’m 100 percent confident we’ll get there.”
Henry attributed the organization’s success to community support.
“When I was 15, I didn’t know how to do anything or know anyone,” he said. “I’m so grateful to Clark County and everyone here for believing in our work and helping support us every day to get there. I’m so excited about what the future holds. It takes a lot to grow an organization, and we wouldn’t be where we are today without this community.”
To learn more about the Northwest Association for Blind Athletes, visit nwaba.org. To donate to the organization, visit app.etapestry.com/hosted/NorthwestAssociationforBlin/OnlineDonation.html.