Conservationist of the Year

Monica Spaeni

WWF Conservationist of the Year

Monica Spaeni is the Founder and President of Access Ability Wisconsin, a charitable non-profit group whose goal is to place free, motorized outdoor wheelchairs in every county of this state for people to use for free. During the last year or so, she has accelerated the meaningful progress and accomplishments in placing wheelchairs, but she has also helped move Wisconsin toward solutions in two additional areas.

Monica has helped guide the DNR and others to remove barriers for people with mobility issues to be able to enjoy natural resources here in Wisconsin. The Open the Outdoors initiative now, thanks to Monica and others, is not only creating greater public awareness but also increasing access to state-owned properties. 

In addition, she recently joined and made significant contributions to the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee of the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin and other groups. Her input will result in more funding and opportunities for people with temporary or permanent mobility challenges.

At a time when COVID-19 leaves people feeling cooped up, she said, “We have a solution that is increasing independence, increasing social interaction, and decreasing depression.” She is a conservation ambassador making a significant contribution to the cause of conservation. 

Setting aside her accomplishments through partnerships and involvement with the DNR and NRF, Monica’s work with AAW alone, is worthy of WWF’s Conservationist of the Year honors. Last year she signed a Memorandum of Agreement with WWF that is already increasing the number of loaner chairs available throughout Wisconsin for people to use year-round for free!

Describing the free all-terrain units, she says, “Regular wheelchairs are like our shoes; the outdoor wheelchair is like our hiking boots.” 

As she told TV host Dan Small during taping of “Deer Hunt Wisconsin” for PBS, Bally (formerly Fox) Sports Wisconsin and Bally Sports North in five states, “The key now is finding partners to host the chairs.”

During pandemic times, both able-bodied and physically challenged individuals have been escaping their homes to enjoy healthy activities among America’s natural resources. Free access to outdoor wheelchairs is a welcome escape for some and a lifesaver for others.

Picture a five-speed wheelchair with tank-like wide rubber tracks on each side, controlled by hand-size joystick on the chair’s arm rest. On-board batteries and dual electric motors with a charger and inverter provide plenty of power. The chair plugs into a regular outlet for recharging in its trailer.

In addition to being only the second woman in 41 years to be honored with the SCI Pathfinder Award, Monica was recognized nationally as a 2019 Purpose Prize winner from the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).

When she received the AARP honor, she said, “Everybody should be able to enjoy the benefits of outdoor recreation with their family and friends. Getting into nature improves self-esteem and well-being, fights depression and isolation, and enhances social bonds. But once you have a physical disability, your choices are limited.”

Monica continues to lead AAW as it fulfills its mission to enable individuals with various types of mobility issues to get outdoors and off the beaten path by raising money to provide outdoor adaptive equipment such as all-terrain wheelchairs, adaptive kayaks and hand cycles, which are prohibitively expensive for most people to own. 

Monica was not a hunter or gun owner before the skiing accident that severed her spine. Now she is an avid hunter and mentor who has risen among the ranks of the Wisconsin Hunter Education Instructors Association (WHEIA).

That day on the slope, when she was making one final run as a chaperone on her son’s field trip, started a chain of events that eventually motivated her to attend a Becoming an Outdoors-Woman event. Being in a wheelchair, feeling vulnerable, she wanted to learn about firearms and self-protection.

BOW’s Diane Lueck and Peggy Farrell, longtime friends of WWF, welcomed her.

“They were great!” she said, “and they got me interested in more than just getting a concealed carry permit.” Monica got involved with groups like WHEIA, Pheasants Forever and Oregon (WI) Sportsman’s Club (OSC).

“In 2012, I participated in an outdoor event using a borrowed all-terrain wheelchair, independently traversing the cornfield and marsh all by myself. It was an incredible feeling, to be free, independently ‘walking.’ I hadn’t experienced such freedom since my injury,” she told AARP. Knowing the obstacles and positive rewards of nature, I decided I wanted to purchase equipment as a free community resource.

“After using the chair on a pheasant hunt, I started thinking about how we could make chairs like this available to more people who want to spend more time outdoors doing things like this, or just being able to walk their dog, go birding or fishing, or whatever,” she said, describing the interests of so many WWF members.

With two master’s degrees and boundless energy, she clearly is not one who abandons a good idea. Instead, she spearheaded creation of AAW as a Dane County PF initiative in 2014 and then as its own charitable nonprofit 501(c)3 organization in 2017. This past year, she has taken it to new heights. She would be the first to admit and to laugh humbly when admirers say, “Monica, you are on a roll.”

Congratulations to Monica Spaeni, WWF Conservationist of the Year, and to all of this year’s honorees!