Many people go their whole lives without finding their true calling. But Mike Mathisen, Baker ’90, is fortunate to be able to do something he loves. The best part? He helps others while doing it. As founder of the Colorado-based nonprofit Follow the Footsteps Epic Adventures, Mathisen enables people living with disabilities to experience the joy and relaxation of outdoor activities.
Engaging in an active lifestyle can often prove difficult for people with disabilities, particularly when it involves the outdoors. Lack of equipment that meets their physical needs, inability to access certain areas and difficulty navigating tricky terrain are all common barriers. Through his organization, Mathisen provides adaptive sporting equipment and, assisted by a group of volunteer guides, coaches people living with disabilities to use it while exploring the National Trails System.
“The true goal is coaching people to independence, and mobility is independence,” Mathisen explained. “When you live with a cognitive or physical disability, your independence is often lost to some extent.”
Mathisen has taken participants out to experience a variety of activities, including hiking, skiing and biking. In the summer of 2022, the nonprofit added its first rafting trip, taking nearly two dozen participants on a two-hour journey down the Colorado River. The group also organized a hike of the Colorado Trail in summer 2022, supporting participants who wanted to hike a portion or all of a planned 45-day trek. Follow the Footsteps is currently planning a hike of the Appalachian Trail for summer 2024.
The organization also gets the families of those who live with disabilities involved, encouraging them to accompany their loved ones on these adventures. They receive guidance from the Follow the Footsteps team so they can serve as a support “crew” on future outings.
Kelly, a mom of a participant, had nothing but great things to say about her family’s experience. She said, “Mike shows incredible patience dealing with my child, as well as all the other kids throughout the different programs he has helped with. His tireless energy and dedication to coaching is a blessing to a single mom like myself. I not only appreciate the skills he gives my son while coaching, but also the mentorship.”
When Mathisen speaks about being in a position to help others move past perceived limitations, his passion for planning and leading these life-changing outings is obvious. “
My goal is to coach families and caregivers to run robust outdoor activities,” he said. “I give the crew the confidence that they can do it. The most rewarding part for me is, I can coach a family so that they can take their loved one out.”
Mathisen, who is an avid skier, realized there was a lack of outdoor recreation opportunities for people with disabilities because his own family has been in the same situation.
“I had two foster daughters who were adopted, and both of them have cognitive disabilities,” Mathisen said. This led him to become involved with a local program, Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports. He volunteered with that organization for about 10 years before branching out to found Follow the Footsteps in 2015.
While Mathisen is clearly devoted to Follow the Footsteps, running the organization isn’t his full-time job. He’s had a lengthy career at commercial food supply company Shamrock Foods. His current position as a sales manager keeps him busy, but he says he’s grateful to work for a company that affords him the flexibility and financial stability to do both.
Follow the Footsteps is mostly self-funded by Mathisen, along with donations. In 2022, the nonprofit received a grant for $23,500 from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. The funds were used to buy new skis and electric hand-assist bike equipment.
The purchases greatly expanded the capabilities of Follow the Footsteps’ Loan Locker program. It’s one of the aspects of the organization that Mathisen is most proud of. Follow the Footsteps has a collection of adaptive sports equipment that it loans out to members of the disabled community. The organization demonstrates and provides instruction on how to use the equipment, which can be borrowed for up to four weeks.
“We’ve converted all of our bike equipment to ebikes,” Mathisen explained. “Ebikes are a game changer for those who want to live an active lifestyle with a disability,” he added.
Terrance, who is living as a double leg amputee, is one of the first participants to benefit from the new equipment. He hasn’t been able to ride standard bikes because they lack the stability he needs to safely stay upright. “I was almost in tears, to be honest with you,” he said, after trying out one of the organization’s newly adapted ebikes. “It absolutely is a gift for people in my situation that people have designed and built this equipment.”
“I’m always searching for adaptive equipment, volunteers and donations to grow and expand,” Mathisen said. Noting that Follow the Footsteps currently provides over 300 guided ski/bike/hike/raft adventures each year, he added, “We are striving for the season when we guide over 1,000 participants.”