Meet Gigi: Army Veteran, Program Participant/Volunteer
Gigi has attended several Paradox Sports trips and never fails to bring excitement, energy, and new participants with her! We had the pleasure of sitting down with her and hearing more about her life, experiences with Paradox, and the non-profit she is starting. Read on to hear more about Gigi!
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am 57. I did 22.5 years in the Army. My first 18 months in the Army I was a Dental Hygienist and then they decided to train me in Dental Forensics Odontology, the identification of remains through the analysis of teeth structure and then I started my journey of doing that. That’s where I got my PTSD, depression and anxiety, doing body identifications on a large scale. I’ve worked out of the Dover Port Mortuary. There I saw explosions, helicopter crashes, you name it- I’ve seen it. I also served as the Non-Commissioned Officer In-Charge over the East Coast for body identifications.
So that’s a bit of my background.
I’m married. My husband was in the Air Force. We met in Germany. We have two kids and one grand baby.
How did you hear about Paradox Sports?
I signed up with the group, Higher Ground (HG) when I lived in Ventura County and I went to Joshua Tree where I met Amy Bannon and Adam Fisher from Paradox Sports and they brought all the equipment and showed everybody how to put on all the gear and climb. I was a little afraid.
I went maybe 10 feet off the ground and said, “This isn’t for me”, so I sat back and learned how to belay a little bit but I mostly watched. The confidence of the Paradox coaches was phenomenal. They didn’t care if you were blind, had one leg, if you couldn’t think straight – whatever. They were there to give you 100% of their time and focus and that really impressed me. When I got back, I googled Paradox Sports and found out you did other trips.
Someone reached out from the HG trip and said, “Yosemite is coming up, you have to go. That’s where you need to be. Our tribe is there.” And so I went!
You recently went on the Ouray Ice trip, can you tell us about your experience?
The best experience ever in my life. Before we got there, Paradox Sports stayed in contact with us, you told us what to expect, and gave packing lists. Everything was great as far as the planning. We got there and met you all. You have all the equipment and you explained everything again so I was totally comfortable.
The next day, we went out and it was just magical – it was like being in the movie Frozen with the snow and ice and the people! And the inclusion! When you come from a group that’s under-represented – being in the Army, for every 1 female, there are 200 men.
Being a female in the Army, being a female in a leadership position in the Army and being a black female in leadership in the Army; there’s nobody like me usually. I’m used to being around all males and feeling like the odd-woman out, but with Paradox, I felt totally immersed.
Seeing people from all walks of life – seeing all types of disabilities. Everybody was there. Everyone was included. People just walk up and introduce themselves. That’s how I met Kitty Calhoun! That just blew my mind. I met her and she said, “Hi, my name is Kitty.” So I talked with her and admired her clothing and then she helped me climb. Then people started asking, “Do you know who she is?!? She is the Mountain Mama!” Then I Googled her and was like, “Oh my Gosh!”
The whole Paradox Team – the experience, the people, the volunteers, it was great. I know I’m gushing and bubbling, but you don’t know what it’s done to change my life. To meet people who are like me AND not like me and want to include me. They want to talk with me. They want to share what they love with me. It’s just been a great experience.
What would you tell someone who has never climbed who is nervous about registering for a trip?
Do it. Overcome your fears. You don’t have anything to worry about as far as the staff, the equipment, where you’ll be climbing, the sleeping arrangements, the food. The only thing you have to worry about is, “Do I look cute? And am I going to have so much fun that my head is going to explode?”
Just do it. Just push yourself. When you get there, you may not be able to do it the first time. You may only just watch the first time, but that’s the first step. That’s the baby step to actually seeing everything, putting on the harnesses. If that’s all you can do your first time, that’s all you can do. And then the next time, you’ll take a bigger step and before you know it, you’ll be totally immersed. Just take that step.
You’ve mentioned wanting to start a climbing trip for women of color, can you tell us more?
I am working on my nonprofit now! It’s called Outdoornista.
I would like to help specifically black and brown women get into outdoor sports. As a people, we typically don’t want to get cold, we don’t want to get our hair wet, we don’t want to mess up our nails. You can have short nails that are cute! You can have protective hairstyles while you’re out there. I think women of color need to see other women of color do something that is not normally within our wheelhouse; succeeding and growing at it. I think a partnership with white and Asian women bringing us into the fold is what we need, especially in outdoor sports. You may have a disability, but to be a black female with a disability, you need to see more people like you represented and enjoying life.
I think by starting a partnership and this initiative, it’s a good way to get the word out that “This is fun. You can do this!”
It’s in the starting phases. I’ve filed the paperwork. My cousin, who works with nonprofits, is helping me get it focused and get it together. She is great at grant writing and is helping get funding for these women to get on trips.
Veteran women often don’t have the resources and funding to take-off and go on a trip like this, but if someone can get a percentage to help them attend, we can alleviate that barrier.
This will be for all sorts of outdoor sports like bass fishing. When I was in the Army, I found out they have a bass fishing team! All they do is sit in boats and fish while representing the Army. I’ve seen on Facebook and Instagram that black women are getting into fishing. I’m currently afraid to even touch a fish that I’m not getting ready to cook. I want to get more into hiking. But I especially want to focus on climbing.
You need to be in the right headspace and you need to concentrate. When you have PTSD, anxiety, depression, you often chase the rabbit down the hole all day and all night. When you climb, you can’t think of anything else but where am I going to put my fingers next. Where does my foot go? Don’t look down. Make your next move. You can’t be depressed and do it. You can’t be anxious and do it. You just focus on the rock ahead of you and go. For people who don’t want to go to therapy, climb.
What’s next for you?
I definitely want to be included on the Yosemite trip. I would love to do a quarterly or monthly blog or a video blog for Paradox letting people know what the experience is like, what the people are like, how fun it is, and something else for them to put in their toolkit of things. A lot of times you go to the VA or you’re an inpatient in a hospital, they want to teach you art or how to play a bongo, lol. This is something where you are actually getting outside, getting Vitamin D, you’re moving, you’re exercising and you’re meeting people and talking and sharing experiences. So that’s what I want to do in the future. In the next 60 to 180 days, I want to build on what I’ve learned from Ouray and from meeting you all and take that forward and share it.
I’m really excited for Shelf Road. I’m wondering about how cold it will be. I’ll be bringing a Boom Box and a mic. So hopefully one night we can do karaoke, lip sync or dance competition, so it’s your choice but you’re doing something!
Would you like to shout out any other organizations that you have participated with that are working on equity in the outdoors or with Veterans?
PGA Hope is an organization that teaches you how to play golf, it’s 8-9 weeks. They have womens programs and mixed gender. I’m in the program that just started this Monday. It’s great. Most of the people are Vietnam-era Veterans and they are wonderful.
Higher Ground is a wonderful climbing organization that is really people oriented and they want to get you out into the outdoors.
Willing Warriors, they are out of Bull Run, near D.C. They have a program where if you are at least 80% disabilied through the V.A., you can come there, stay in their housing for a week. The White House cooks come in and serve 6 course meals. They have excursions, you just have to get there.
Wounded Warrior Project is wonderful. They have events and excursions, something for everyone if you’re a 9/11 veteran.
There are so many organizations that want to get you out of the house and living a quality life.