Our history began in 2003 when two separate teams of individuals launched organizations designed to change people’s lives by providing transformative educational experiences. One, No Barriers USA, started by working with adults and children with disabilities while the other, Global Explorers, reached middle and high school students. Both believed that by taking people out of their comfort zones and exploring the world, you could forever shift the lens through which they saw and navigated their lives. Here’s the story of how the paths of these two organizations eventually united to become one.
While in graduate school at Duke University in the late nineties, Julie Dubin and David Shurna dreamed of creating an organization that would give kids of all backgrounds the opportunity to explore the world at a young age. In so doing, it would expand students’ perception of the world and what they thought to be possible. Years after graduate school, they were lucky to find themselves together again in Colorado where they committed, over the course of several months, to spend one day per week outlining the organization of their dreams. No sooner had they put their ideas down on paper than a generous donor invested in the first three years of launching it. From that point forward they were off and running! In 2005, as they continued to explore new ways to reach diverse students, they met with Erik Weihenmayer and co-created a program for youth called Leading the Way, still in existence today at No Barriers, that combines kids with and without disabilities. The relationship with Erik continued to grow through the years, eventually leading to conversations in 2011 about how the two organizations might be stronger as one.
Over the course of 10 years, Global Explorers touched the lives of thousands of students, teachers and families. By 2012, it was a mid-sized nonprofit organization with programs on four continents, serving 500+ students and families per year with an operating budget of $2 million. Around the same time that Julie and Dave launched their nonprofit organization, Jim Goldsmith, Mark Wellman, Wayne Hanson and Paolo Pompanin got together and brainstormed an event to create an awareness of the abilities of people with disabilities. They chose Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, as the location of their first event. The event was also designed to encourage the town fathers to increase the accessibility of their facilities to meet the needs of disabled people, including the aging local population.
A Cortina committee – Dolomiti senza barriere onlus – was spearheaded by Ugo Pompainin and Miki Maioni; the Commune and Regione di Venito pledged their financial support. The United States group and friends provided organizational and matching financial support. A date for NO BARRIERS / DOLOMITI, July 8-11, 2004, was put on the Cortina calendar!
In 2004, Mark invited Erik Weihenmayer and Hugh Herr to come to Cortina with their families and to be a part of the event. Mark and Erik joined a grassroots fundraising evening, others made donations and, with the Italians, raised $100,000 to host the first No Barriers festival.
That first event was largely designed and managed by the Italian partners – Ugo Pompanin, Miki Maioni, Alessandra Urbancich and Maruo di Baisi. Local officials spoke about various programs for the disabled and audiences shared their concerns and views; programs and equipment were exhibited; and demonstrations by disabled athletes were held. The featured events were an evening of films and talks by the three athletes from the United States: Mark Wellman, Erik Weihenmayer and Hugh Herr, and their climb of a face of Cinque Torri.
During the 2004 post mortem, Hugh encouraged another Cortina Festival and took responsibility for staging a Symposium panel of significant researchers, technicians and innovators. In August-September 2004, the fire was lit!
In 2005, a United States non-for-profit named No Barriers USA was formed. Erik, Jim, Hugh and Mark worked tirelessly to raise funds and design the program. Thus, with considerable input from the U.S. Board, the Italian Committee garnered local support and managed NO BARRIERS / DOLOMITI 2005. The Symposium was excellent, exhibits and demonstrations of adaptive equipment were thouroughly engaging, and the featured climb of the Cadini route of the Tre Cime by Hugh Herr, Erik Weihenmayer and Andy Holter was extremely exciting.
Future festivals came to be called Summits and moved to the United States. In 2010, No Barriers added its Soldiers to Summits programming, now No Barriers Warriors, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Erik Weihenmayer’s historic Mt. Everest Summit. These programs continued the tradition of using transformative experiences to deeply impact people’s lives.
These two independent organizations crossed paths again in 2011, making a decision that would catapult the work forward so that they could impact exponentially more lives. The Global Explorers board sought ways to diversify the clients that it served, build new fundraising avenues and achieve a strong long-term sustainable future. No Barriers, still a small nonprofit with just one full-time staff member, wanted to leverage the strong institutional structure created by Global Explorers to reach exponentially more people.
Seizing a golden opportunity, the two boards made the bold decision to merge into one organization, operating under the Global Explorers 501c3 but renamed No Barriers USA. This helped leverage the organizational structure of Global Explorers while creating a brand and a mission that was expansive in impact.
During the next decade, No Barriers expanded in new ways by bringing in other organizations with aligned missions. In 2015, Educo Leadership Adventures merged with No Barriers, creating the opportunity to serve youth on a mountain camp property in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado. In 2019, Heather Zoccali ( Founder Caregivers Program & Former Program Director) brought the Arch Foundation into No Barriers to serve caregivers. Since that time, the caregiver program has grown and received national acclaim for filling an important niche. The mountain campus, too, has grown, with a building project being completed in 2022 to create an accessible space for outdoor adventure and wellness