National Ability Center receives $1 million gift to bolster employee recruitment, retention

Donation would fund program specialist positions for three years

The National Ability Center received a $1 million donation from The Grainger Foundation that will be used to fully fund program specialist roles over three years. The position is crucial to developing and implementing adaptive recreation activities for individuals and families of all ability levels.
Courtesy of the National Ability Center

A $1 million gift bestowed to a Park City-area nonprofit will aid employee recruitment efforts, helping more people of all abilities explore the great outdoors.

The National Ability Center will use the money to create new program specialist positions — full-timers dedicated to developing adaptive recreation activities and tailoring them to individuals and families — and boost the impact of the nonprofit.

The donation came from The Grainger Foundation, an independent private foundation based in Illinois focused on providing support for various organizations, including educational, medical, cultural and human services institutions.

“With the increasing needs of adaptive sports worldwide, this is the time to empower our team to provide high-quality program experiences to those with disabilities — a goal that can only be accomplished with highly trained, experienced and passionate staff,” Caitlin Bognaski, the director of development at the National Ability Center, said in a statement.

The $1 million will allow the nonprofit to create several fully funded positions over three years for quality staff who may have otherwise only stayed on for a season or two because of low pay or other constraints. Now, they have the opportunity to enhance their skills and receive additional training.

The National Ability Center had one program specialist position before the donation. However, it is paid for by the nonprofit. There are 50 full-time employees and around 100 seasonal staff with as many as 200 volunteers across more than 20 programs, including overnight camps, adaptive horseback riding, whitewater rafting and rock climbing.

Last year, more than 5,400 people of all ages experienced over 30,000 activities, from hiking and biking to archery and rock climbing, along with snow sports, hosted by the nonprofit.

While the National Ability Center can provide quality, intensive training to its staff, experience is something that can’t be taught — especially when working with diverse populations such as veterans, neurodivergent and those with physical or hidden disabilities.

Tracy Meier, the nonprofit’s chief programs officer, said staff retention has been a major concern for the organization as it looks to serve as many people as possible. Employees want to stay, but it can be difficult because of the cost of living in the Park City area.

“We expect a lot of our team members. They have to understand, just like a ski instructor or a water skiing instructor, the fundamentals of that sport or that recreational activity,” Meier explained. “Then you take it to the next level of how do I make rafting, accessible and camping on the river accessible? How do we meet all of the dietary needs or the medical concerns?”

The $1 million will be used to keep talented staff on the team by paying them a livable wage, providing benefits and creating a balance between work and personal life. The starting rate is $20 an hour, with the wage increasing based on experience or certifications.

The first three positions have already been filled by people who have been working at the National Ability Center part time. The staff were chosen because they expressed a desire to stay on with the nonprofit even if that meant they had to find a way to make it work. One woman who earned the program specialist title told Meier the position would allow her to quit her three other jobs and just have one.

After the first year, the three program specialists would be tasked with advising the next cohort. There would be six staff in this role by the second year, and nine by the end of the third year. This sustainable model helps develop instructor expertise while reducing turnover, according to Jim Ryan, the director of The Grainger Foundation.

The program specialist positions are full-time, 10-month positions with benefits, including health care. The workers will have staggered breaks during the shoulder seasons when programming isn’t as busy. The Grainger Foundation will also provide training dollars to improve the team’s skills as well as a gear stipend to improve efficiency in instruction.

More than 5,400 people of all ages experienced over 30,000 activities, from hiking and biking to archery and rock climbing, last year as part of programs hosted by the National Ability Center.
Courtesy of the National Ability Center

“It gives them the opportunity to work hard and play hard. They can go recharge and come back ready to go for the busy season,” Meier said. “We expect that our team, through training and experience, can work with a veteran in the morning and then go out with a family and play pickleball with a young kiddo who is on the autism spectrum.”

Meier said the nonprofit will have to find a way to continue funding the program specialist positions after three years.

The upcoming winter season is packed with various programs, including the return of adventure-based programs. The opening of the McGrath Mountain Center, an ADA-accessible facility that will serve as a home base for the organization’s adaptive ski and snowboard programs, this season will also be huge for the nonprofit.

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