A lot has happened since Starla Hilliard-Barnes was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Montana last July.
She and her husband, Shannon Barnes, have founded an adaptive sports program and foundation called Moving Forward that is providing opportunities for differently abled athletes to participate in a wide variety of activities, from zip-lining to horseback riding.
The couple are the muscle behind a sled hockey clinic planned this weekend at Woodland Ice Center in Kalispell.
They’re working with city of Kalispell officials to create the first adaptive park in the Flathead Valley. And when they’re not conducting local events and advocating for people with disabilities, they’re traveling the country to give motivational talks with the theme of life without limitations.
Moving Forward’s mantra is apropos: “Never stop rocking just because you roll.”
Starla was left paralyzed by a hit-and-run accident in downtown Kalispell six years ago. Since then she got married, gave birth to daughter Elissiah three years ago and has been an ardent advocate for overcoming adversity.
When the couple began pondering a year ago how they could inspire people and give back to the community, they joined forces with Bruce Semler, a local business owner who had suffered the tragic loss of a daughter several years ago. He helped them launch Moving Forward.
“We have held 10 sporting events,” Starla said, listing zip lining, sled hockey, horseback riding, hand cycling, skiing (snow and water) and kayaking among the activities. They also have put on fashion shows, working with a local modeling agency to give less athletically inclined disabled participants an opportunity to be included.
“There’s been good response,” she said. “We deal with about 40 differently abled people, but we welcome anyone, able-bodied or differently abled. The whole goal is inclusion so no one’s left out.”
The assistant directors for Moving Forward are Matt Sather and David Singleton, both adaptive athletes who bring a personal perspective to adaptive activities.
Starla got the idea to create an adaptive park while she was in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, last summer for the national Ms. Wheelchair competition. It was the first time she was able to move around a park area and play with her daughter. Most parks, with their wood chips and landscape edging, typically are not wheelchair-friendly or handicap-accessible.
With the true heart of an advocate for change, Starla met with the mayor of Cuyahoga Falls following the competition and learned all she could about adaptive parks. Then she contacted Kalispell Mayor Mark Johnson and other city officials about developing an adaptive park here.
At an estimated cost of $500,000, raising the money will be a challenge, but Starla and Shannon are all-in. The biggest expense, Starla noted, is specialized rubber coating that creates a fall-safe surface for park users.
They hope to finalize a location within the next month. Woodland Park or Kidsports are being considered as sites.
Moving Forward Foundation has applied for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, and during the interim is using the nonprofit umbrella of vets-help.org to raise money.
Another local nonprofit, Unlimbeted Foundation, is assisting Moving Forward by offering adaptive ski instruction.
As they bring their message of inclusion and “never stop rocking” to communities throughout the United States, Starla and Shannon have inspired others to become advocates for the differently abled, and they’ve also been inspired.
“We have met so many going through difficult times,” Starla said. “I feel blessed to give back to them. We tell them that they don’t have to live with limitations. Never stop living just because something happens to you.”
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org