Children with disabilities reach their peak potential through rock climbing

BY Lauren Wanko, Correspondent |

These kids are determined, motivated and utterly excited to rock climb. They’ve learned nothing will stop them — not even a disability. 11-year-old Rachel uses crutches.

“It feels so good and perfect for me,” she said. “It’s actually really fun and helps my legs a lot.”

Eight-year-old Chanel can’t walk, yet she seems to fly up the wall.

“This program has to be the single most fulfilling thing in my entire life,” said Peak Potential founder Dr. Jenfu Cheng.

About 18 years ago, avid climber and medical doctor Cheng founded Peak Potential, an organization that provides adaptive rock climbing to children with disabilities.

“When I started my physical medicine rehabilitation residency, what I discovered was that for families with children with disabilities one of the major challenges that they have is finding sports and recreation for their kids to participate in. And I thought it would be a natural combination of two different passions to bring climbing and the medicine together,” Cheng said.

The free, 12-week sessions are run entirely by Peak Potential volunteers at four different rock climbing facilities in New Jersey. The nonprofit also takes kids climbing outdoors.

Volunteer Scott Blackburn is also an adaptive climber. He was born with no fingers in his right hand.

“When you see the kid that’s nervous, and then you’re working with them and they get to the top and you see their face light up, and they’re like ‘Oh my God I did it,’ there’s nothing like it,” Blackburn said.

During a session at the Garden State Rocks location in Morganville, all of the kids made it to the top — some more than once. When they did, the crowd erupted in cheers. James was born with a number of disabilities, including a type of cerebral palsy.

“He’s an almost 10-year-old wonder,” said James’ mother Jennifer Martin. “The first time he ever climbed and I saw him hit the top I started to cry because there’s nothing more important to a parent than to see their child succeed, and there’s nothing more important to us then to see our children, my child, do something that every other child does.”

James has been part of the program for years. Kids are welcome to participate even after the 12-week session.

“James has gained core strength, and the ability to differentiate between his left side and his right side is something that he really learns on a wall,” Martin said.

“I definitely have seen her be more independent, more self-aware and just more confident,” said Chanel’s mom Kenisha Hollingsworth.

“One of the major goals of the Peak Potential program is to help the kids to realize how much they’re capable of doing. And sometimes they surprise themselves,” said Cheng.