This article originally appeared in our 2016 August issue. If you are interested in seeing more stories like this, click HERE to subscribe.
It was 15 years ago when Stephen Cull was invited to a wheelchair-accessible lakeside cottage in Muskoka, a boating Mecca in Ontario, Canada, for a day of pontooning with a couple of friends, his girlfriend, and his 85-year-old aunt.
“We were having so much fun on the boat that I declared right there on Lake Muskoka, ‘I'm going home to start a charter service for people with disabilities,’” he recalls.
As a quadriplegic, Stephen is no stranger to the difficulties that come with being in a wheelchair. A tobogganing accident 25 years earlier resulted in a life-changing stay in intensive care, where Stephen made an unexpected friendship.
“I literally wouldn’t have met my friend, my soul brother, if we both didn’t break our necks—he in a car accident, me in a tobogganing accident,” Stephen explains. “We went through a year of rehab to live as quadriplegics.”
This was the same friend, incidentally, who invited him to come out boating that fateful day in Muskoka. Their confinement to wheelchairs didn’t stop them from enjoying a full day of boating, and that got the gears in Stephen’s head turning. Spearheading a charity that could get people out on the water no matter their physical situations started him on the path of what would become his goal and dream: CharterAbility.
“So it was all started on a pontoon boat,” Stephen remembers. “The first thing I did is look around the world to see who was doing this. There were models to mirror, most run by people with disabilities.”
Organizations like Excalibur on Lake Erie, Tranquil Adventures in Florida, MV Freedom in England, and The Last Frontiersman in Alaska were all groups Stephen found to be especially noteworthy.
“The above organizations, mostly Captain Mick [who still speaks to him today], were my models and mentors,” Stephen shares. “We used lots of their pictures during the feasibility study and proof of concept stage.”
Putting A Plan Together
After scouting around for ideas and inspiration, the next thing Stephen did was call Transport Canada for a list of nautical engineers. Eric Rogers from Nautical Adventures was one they put him in touch with, and when he answered the second call, Stephen says he still recites Eric’s quote today: “Our family has been chartering boats for 50-plus years. Getting disabled people out on the water is woefully lacking; how can I help?”
“I learned quickly that the ‘nonprofit’ side of the business was the most challenging,” Stephen says. “In 2002, there were no books and limited resources on how to start a nonprofit or charity—so little, in fact, that my business consultant encouraged me to start CharterAbility as a for-profit business. I was adamant on nonprofit and declined!”
The road may have been rough going, but things smoothed out farther down as Stephen began assembling his team.
“I was fortunate in the beginning to have Alan Tonge and Eric, who’s been the vice president of CharterAbility for 14 years, as well as people who literally worked with startups,” Stephen says. “They helped me build my dream. I remember early on telling a local, a very distinguished gentleman, my plan. The twinkle in his eye was extraordinary!”
After the team pulled together, they were excited to partner with Wendy Perkins and the Wai Nui O Kanaka Outrigger Canoe Club to throw a big party to raise awareness and enough money for an accessible dock they could share. The joint crew got everything from food sponsors to a venue pulled together for the big event. One hundred silent auction/raffle items and appetizers galore were donated, including oysters, chocolate-covered strawberries, beer and martinis.
After recruiting a few more volunteers to help and selling over 300 tickets, they were able to bring in $12,000. This money, as well as a $100,000 grant just to build the docking facility, all went towards setting up CharterAbility and the Wai Nui O Kanaka Outrigger Canoe Club for their first runs on the beautiful Sixteen Mile Creek in Oaksville, Ontario.
While building the docking facility, the crew chose EZ Dock, considered the most Americans With Disabilities-compliant dock, and made sure to also install accessible bathrooms. The pontoons that CharterAbility has been using for 14 years were both donated free of charge to the charity by “angels of the community,” as Stephen fondly calls them.
After that, the charity was all set.
“We've done a fundraiser every spring and summer since,” Stephen explains. “We get the venue for cost or zero cost in some cases. We never pay full price for anything because we’re doing something for the community and invite local shops and businesses to participate.”
Access For All
Today, Stephen says their accessible docking facility is simply buzzing with people all summer long. With over 320 trips completed last year, their phone was ringing off the hook. You can hear the pride in his voice when Stephen says, “We do nursing homes, retirement homes, autistic kids, and people with disabilities.”
So how did Stephen have so much confidence that building a charity to offer free boat rides would have such success? Aside from his own personal experience, a government-funded feasibility study helped, proving that people with disabilities and seniors did in fact want to get out on the water—as long as it was accessible.
“When you ask a person with a disability or a senior with mobility challenges, ‘Tomorrow we’re going for a boat ride, do you want to come?’ they immediately think, ‘It's not for me, I may break my hip, I can't see very well due to my cataracts, it’s probably not accessible for my walker, wheelchair or scooter,’” Stephen shares. “Most will decline the conventional boating opportunity. But when you include people there to help, accessible bathrooms close by, ramped gangways and gangplanks, and entrances wide enough to fit a wheelchair, all of a sudden they’re 100 percent in.”
Stephen has been honored with the Queen Diamond Jubilee Medal three years ago, the Oakville Community Spirit Award two years ago, and a Rotary Paul Harris recognition this past January—but he’s not big on taking the credit himself.
“It's all because of the literally hundreds of people who have supported this crazy beautiful idea,” Stephen grins. “The awards are a testament to the people who shared my vision.”
With this registered charity’s success really falling into step and all of the generosity of volunteers and community patrons that made it possible, the team has really been able to get some long hours clocked in with their pontoons. So much so, in fact, that CharterAbility is now looking for a new pontoon to share the load with the more weathered boats.
“CharterAbility is such a beautiful story. It’s ironic that we’re looking for a brand-new pontoon boat. As the president and founder, I’d like to tie it in with a builder, a partner that I could tie in and sell boats for,” Stephen shares.
Anyone who’s interested in joining up a partnership with this fantastic crew is more than welcome to contact Stephen at CharterAbility for more details. As for their success, you can be sure it’ll only keep growing. After all, Stephen is already having discussions with a stateside boater who wants to start up a CharterAbility in Minnesota.
At this point, it’s really only a matter of time.