You are here

Please respect the outdoors by practicing Leave No Trace. Learn more about how to apply the principles of Leave No Trace on your next outdoor adventure here.
Georgina Miranda | 07.10.2019

As a cancer survivor, Kareemah Batts knows a few things about persevering in times of struggle, a life of meaning, and instability in the pursuit of passion. Since her diagnosis in 2009, she has moved to the forefront of the adaptive climbing community. As the founder of Adaptive Climbing Group, a non-profit dedicated to improving accessibility to the sport of climbing for people with disabilities, she and her athletes have broadened our understanding of what is possible on a climbing wall.

At Outdoor Project, we've made it part of our mission to celebrate and amplify the voices of women in the outdoors, and Kareemah Batts is a vocal advocate for accessibility. In our third year of Women in the Wild, we are proud to share our platform with courageous and inspiring female figures who are making a difference in the outdoor industry and the world at-large. It’s been an honor to be a guest editor this year for Women in the Wild, and I am grateful and inspired by all of the remarkable women that I got to connect with and interview. They are shaping a new narrative daily, and they show us anything is possible with tenacity, creativity, and purpose.

 

People have an unrealistic view of cancer, treatment, and recovery. Awareness and understanding is needed more than compassion.

—Kareemah Batts

 

In this interview, we speak with Kareemah Batts about her cancer diagnosis, para-climbing, and what it means to survive a life-threatening disease. This interview has been edited for clarity.

 


Photo courtesy of Kareemah Batts.

Georgina Miranda: Tell us about Kareemah Batts. How would you describe your connection to the outdoors/adventure either professionally or through other pursuits today?

Kareemah Batts: I am a seat-filler, a connector. I show up to things if I see something missing, and I fill the need. I love and am good at connecting people to resources. I feel like that is one of my biggest roles no matter where you put me. My connection to the outdoors is therapeutic. It’s a part of who I am and who I strive to be and preserve in my life.

GM: You are a cancer survivor. How did this journey impact your overall life mission?

KB: Being diagnosed with cancer changed my life drastically in every aspect—physically, spiritually, and professionally. I was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, a soft tissue cancer that can show up anywhere in the body. It can show up in organs and even as a tumor on your face. It resulted in having to have my left leg amputated below the knee. How I approach things in my life changed overall, as well as what matters to me most. I now speak more freely and do less of what I don’t want to do.

GM: Were you always drawn to a life of the outdoors and social impact before your diagnosis?

KB: The outdoors was a part of my life, but not like now—it is my life now. When I was younger, I was part of Pathfinders, a church-centered recreational and spiritual program designed for both boys and girls, grades five through 10. It is kind of like a Christian version of the Girl Scouts. I had badges and knew how to do loads of campfires and knots. In college, I was an NYC party girl, doing office work and chasing the dream like most 20-year-olds do in college. The outdoors was not a part of my life then and took a backseat.

I was diagnosed in 2009 and underwent an amputation and cancer treatment for 1 year. There was a lot of time needed to recover from both. I was in remission by summer 2010. In this time, I had to learn how to be an amputee as well as heal from any internal and external side effects from my treatment.

GM: How did your journey get you to where you are today?

KB: Part of my recovery involved spending a lot of time outside to learn to walk again. That also led to learning and trying a lot of new sports recommended by my physical therapist. Some of these included: swimming, hand cycling, or trails in Central Park. It was also the beginning of exploring the waterways of NYC.

I was later invited to join Colorado Mountain School in Estes Park to go outdoor climbing with other cancer survivors. It was a deep spiritual and physical journey to be surrounded by people like me, and there were a lot of lifelong friendships made there. Being there gave me a sense of belonging and an understanding of who I was and what that meant. It also highlighted who my friends were. Mentally, this experience was critical. It was the first time I spent so much time just dedicated to climbing. My first climbing experience during treatment made it seem like it would always be impossible, but now it was totally possible.

Being away and being out there in a place where your mind can be clear was a huge gift. Just being able to take in the glory and wonder of God’s creation and recognize that you are part of it, too. Being reminded in your life that you are part of something more is really an important balance.

GM: What aspects of your healing journey were the most challenging?

KB: People have an unrealistic view of cancer, treatment, and recovery. The closest people around me were sometimes the most toxic. They might say things like, “Come on, beat it,” or, “You got this,” and it’s taxing because you have to be the stronger person for them. I felt a lot of pressure to not be vulnerable, and it took some time getting used to people looking at me weirdly.

Awareness and understanding is needed more than compassion. Understanding what is the most important thing right now for that individual. People want to be validated, heard, seen, and know that what is important to them is understood. If people could acknowledge the person’s feelings and then explain what they are feeling, there would be a better level of awareness as well.

Movements in the outdoor industry regarding sex, gender, race, and everything is important to every group. All is a priority. If each group could understand this, it could help in creating better solutions and better communication and understanding.

GM: What initiatives/projects/goals are you focused on?

KB: So many things! Right now I have a ton of site visits with my Boston Team. It’s the height of the season for outdoor teams all around. I am also preparing for Outdoor Retailer [Summer Market 2019], and it will be the first time we have a non-profit booth for Adaptive Climbing Group. I want the booth to be informative and inspirational, and we will have guest athletes, events, and stream video.

I will also be one of the judges for the Inspiration Awards this summer, participate in Women in the Outdoors Week in NYC, and sit on the DEI task force for Climb the Hill and on the advisory committee for Color the Crag. Then there is the Flash Foxy Summerfest, their first all-gender event that celebrates women, put on by women but open to anyone. I will be on a panel on allyship​​​​​​ and bring some of our athletes.

I’m in the final preparations for the International Federation of Sport Climbing in Europe in July and coordinating logistics for our athletes to get there. Part of the preparation is working on a training camp for para-climbing. Currently, there are no para-climbing training camps in the U.S., and the rules and styles are quite different internationally, so a camp is needed to help the athletes prepare to compete.

I am excited to announce that I am joining the USA Paraclimbing team at the event in France! Hoping to get to experience its wonderful nature benefits.

GM: Share more about your work with Adaptive Climbing Group. How can people support your work?

KB: People can learn all about us and how to donate by visiting our website. Adaptive Climbing Group is a community for people with disabilities to have opportunities to inclusively participate in the sport of climbing. Adaptive Climbing is taking the already-existing abilities of a person and helping them participate in the sport.

Climbing is expensive and para-climbing is even more expensive, so our work comes with additional challenges. For example, in supporting our athletes, we need to consider: accessible housing, specialized gear, shower chairs, adaptive needs, and vehicles to accommodate.

We currently have over 1,000 participants, 16 sponsored athletes, and 20 program leaders, all volunteer run. We are the most active adaptive group in the country. The program is run under the Brooklyn Boulders Foundation, and we operate in all Brooklyn boulders gyms and with many other gym partners around the country (Gravity Vault, Central Rock Gyms, The Cliffs, Rock Spot, and others).

One great way to support us, besides donating, is to follow us on social media, and it is the best way to see all the work we are doing across the country. We are also always happy to have more pro deals with sponsors. Big brands see the impact and results when working with us.

Another great way to support us is with pro bono services. I would love help with our social media, redoing our website, fundraising, and programming, and I’m open to ideas.

GM: Where do you draw your inspiration/motivation from? Has that changed over your time?

KB: My volunteers and participants are my inspiration.

GM: What have been some of the biggest challenges you have had to overcome related to your outdoor pursuits or your career? What helped you overcome those challenges? 

KB: Overcoming cancer was a main one. I also lost my home in deadly arson fire around the time I decided to quit my job. I not only lost my home, I almost died. The arsonist padlocked the driveway and gates so the people inside could not get out. As a result, I lived in a hotel for a while and was homeless up until February of this year. They did catch the arsonist, who suffered from mental illness that included schizophrenia. Finding my life purpose and sticking to it was what got me through all of this.

GM: What do you see as the most important issue or set of issues affecting women and people with disabilities in the outdoor/adventure space? Where do you see yourself having the biggest impact on these issues?

KB: I have a unique perspective, as I cut across a lot of marginalized groups: plus-sized, women of color, person of color, homeless, on food stamps, from a low-income area, part Cherokee, and more. So I come with a different mindset as to whose theme and subject matter is most important. I support all of them.

There is a lot of anger and disappointment among marginalized groups right now. People need to learn about one another’s triggers in order to have better dialogue and come up with solutions that help everyone.

What I can bring is an aspect of understanding and caring. I come from a family of mixed backgrounds and all nationalities. I believe in respectfully sharing different points of view to increase awareness and understanding.

GM: How do you keep your pursuits going? How did you get it all to a point where this is a feasible lifestyle for you? How do you support your adventures/passions? Has this changed over time?

KB: It was a hobby for 6 years and a job for 3 years now. I left a good job in tech because I love what I do and see a need for it. That meant taking a deep paycut to work on this non-profit. I am still interested and open to other creative means to support my livelihood, like sponsorships and things that compliment my work. 

GM: What’s been the most useful advice given to you along your journey? What advice do you wish you were given when you were younger?

KB: Don’t shit where you eat. Friendship is something that is earned. Don’t be afraid to ask questions in everything. If you are unsure, ask; if you don’t believe, ask.

GM: If any, what other tips/advice/encouragement do you have for women looking to embark on a similar career or path or wanting to make a difference in the world?

KB: Control your narrative in every space and medium. If you feel like you are not in control of your narrative, step away. Start a podcast, start a blog, etc.; don’t let anyone speak for you. The biggest power anyone can have is control of their narrative.

GM: What’s been your favorite outdoor/indoor adventure to date and why? What’s on your adventure bucket list and/or coming up for you?

KB: Horseshoe Canyon for the first time. I had never been to Arkansas. I hiked in Washington Park near Seattle this year and visited the Japanese Gardens. It was a beautiful space to clear my mind.

GM: What is the message you would like to share with the world, the outdoor community, and other women in general? Or what is a story you hope to tell in your lifetime?

KB: Language matters. Togetherness. Recognize abilities and skill sets to work together to create a better industry for ALL of us. Diversity is more than color. We use language to mean something else. People with disabilities get left out of society.

Want to hear more from Kareemah Batts? Find her on Instagram at @adaptclimbinggroup ​​and on her official website. Adaptive Climbing Group relies on donations, so please consider giving your support in any way you can. For more inspiring outdoorswomen, find all of our interviews and articles at Women in the Wild 2019.

Comments

Have updates, photos, alerts, or just want to leave a comment?
Sign In and share them.

Brought to you by:

Women in the Wild 2019

Women in the Wild is a movement that recognizes the amazing women who enrich the outdoor community with their passions, inspirations, and accomplishments. Outdoor Project is proud to grow this campaign in 2019 with the help of guest editor and 2018 #womaninthewild Georgina Miranda, adventurer, entrepreneur, mountaineer, and founder and CEO of She Ventures. We're proud to open our platform once again for the incredible stories and photography of women throughout our community. From in-depth interviews with outdoor advocates, influencers, and athletes to female-focused content from the community, Women in the Wild 2019 aims to amplify the voice of women in celebration of female fortitude, strength, and camaraderie in the outdoors.

More content from Women in the Wild 2019

Outdoor advocate, writer, speaker, influencer, #womeninthewild
Big mountain skier, first to ski the Seven Summits, 2015 National Geographic Explorer of the Year, mother, #womeninthewild
Sponsored by:Women in the Wild 2019