The Mountain Times

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Empowerment through sports, when spirits soar

Hopefully you have been reading about the new Andrea Mead Lawrence Lodge that the Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports program and the Pico Ski Education Foundation are engaged in building at Pico to facilitate and enhance their respective programs.

By sharing the two-story building, they will each have new headquarters that will enable them to better serve skiers, snowboarders and competitors of various ages.

Having kids learn to race through programs like the one the Pico Ski Club makes possible- via support from the Pico Ski Education Foundation, which is an important fundraising arm-is a very powerful testament to community support for our children and teenagers. Most importantly, these programs teach skills, which lead to growing confidence and competence. Those are traits that help kids grow into adulthood with a greater sense of worth and resiliency-the necessary attitude of 'I can do it' or 'I can make it' that helps in overcoming life's adversities.

More than winning races-and that is admittedly a goal-competitors are taught that it is about hard work, teamwork, and good sportsmanship, all good character-building traits.

But what of the children and adults for whom getting out on the slopes seems impossible due to disabilities?

Thanks to the world of adaptive snow sports, that "improbable experience" is possible and has been empowering hundreds of people of all ages at Pico Mountain.

Schuss Stopper
It was the sound of cowbells that stopped me in my tracks. On the slope below, a Blind Skier was traversing with two guides. They were gliding along in a synchronized dance, the bells providing auditory cues to turn as they skied the Snowmass (CO) trail - a miraculous scene.

But not a common one in 1974.
Whereas in the post-Vietnam era I had seen amputees skiing on one leg - balancing with special ski-tipped poles - I had never seen a blind person ski. Deeply moved (I was skiing six months pregnant with my first child), I watched and witnessed another early step in the adaptive movement that was slowly gaining hold in this country.

Fast forward to March 12, 2011.
A lone wheelchair sits in a snow bank outside the Pico Mountain Base Lodge.

Someone, seeing the camera around my neck, tells me it would make a good picture.

"Already got it," I say.

What we both "get" is that its occupant has "gone skiing."

Here, in that cast-aside chair, was another reminder of life's possibilities. And of the importance of volunteers who were not only making adaptive skiing and riding possible but on this particular day also making participating in a race possible for a blind person!

Heart Warmer
There was my friend, and fellow writer, Linda Goodspeed racing. Diagnosed with glaucoma at age ten, surgeries and medication helped maintain her fading eyesight for many years, but gradually she went blind.

"I started skiing at age five and raced a little in the Mid-Vermont program. I stopped skiing for a few years while living in Boston but then skied with friends or family a little and found out about Vermont Adaptive. We moved back to Rutland and ski every weekend now," Linda related.

The "we" includes her daughter Masha, who also participated in the Pico racing program, often while Linda skied with a Vermont Adaptive volunteer. Then Masha became a volunteer, too.

"Sometimes Masha is one of my guides. I'm proud of her doing that. It's a great way for us to share the experience of skiing, gets us outdoors, and provides a social group.

"It's like walking into Cheers when we walk into the base lodge; everybody knows each other . . . they call out 'Hi Linda,' 'Hi Masha.'

"Camaraderie has always been such an important part of the sport," Linda added.

Linda, who usually free skis with a guide behind her calling out left, right, or downhill, actually skied in the race using ankle tethers. It was a way to foster the "precision needed to turn around the poles," she said.

"Racing's fun and by participating we give something back. And yeah, I'm adventurous. Masha and I were a team and called our selves One and a Half Women," she added with her mischievous chuckle.

Loss of eyesight had not robbed Linda of her daring sense or her sense of humor. 

A post-race banquet and auction provided part of the social life Linda alluded to. Close to 90 racers - able bodied and disabled - competed in the Ski Challenge that day, which together with the other festivities raised $14,000 for the Adaptive program ($20,000 raised in 2012 Ski Challenge).

Volunteers Personify Spirit of Giving
The dedicated volunteers who serve as instructors and guides with Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports make "gone skiing" a reality for children and adults who have physical, cognitive, and/or emotional disabilities.

"Volunteers often use their vacation days to help out during busy times like Presidents' Week. It's that kind of dedication that enables us to provide more lessons for our clients," notes Vermont Adaptive's Executive Director Erin Fernandez. She added that it takes two or three volunteers for each client so it really is "the dedication that makes the program work."

The Vermont Adaptive program, which began in 1987 at Mount Ascutney, has grown tremendously as the ability to empower individuals with self-confidence and independence became recognized and valued. That is how it grew into a statewide non-profit organization that now has three winter sites - Sugarbush, Bolton Valley, and Pico (its headquarters) -and a staff of six. They work with over 400 volunteers, who also serve as instructors and guides for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, horseback riding, sailing, tandem biking, hiking, camping, and many other sports.

"The vast majority of the volunteers who work with Alpine skiing specialize in a particular area. Physical therapists might work with the physically disabled while special educators might choose to work with developmentally or mentally challenged youngsters. They usually get a feel for what they might be good at and enjoy through our orientation sessions. That's when we explain who we are, what we do, our policies and things like disability awareness with the focus first on people, not the disability," Fernandez explained.

Off-snow trainings cover topics like what it is like to be visually impaired, seizures, safety, and medicines. They commence in October and change to on-snow sessions in December. There's been much team building in the process and come snow season, the new volunteers have become assistant instructors who work with experienced "lead instructors."  Over time, they often become lead instructors themselves, while the latter may become trainers. Many work with the Professional Ski Instructors of America and earn PSIA certification.

"There's also a Junior Volunteer program with youngsters sometimes as young as ten becoming volunteers because they might be working with a parent or like to assist lead instructors with youngsters. Junior volunteers who work as assistant instructors can help youngsters feel better about themselves because they are among their peer group," Fernandez noted.

"We always need new volunteers who are strong skiers or riders," Fernandez said, adding that because it is a four-season program, anyone with a love of the outdoors might find volunteering beneficial. She said that volunteers for winter come from many nearby towns but also from out of state, citing wonderful support for the program.

That support extends to Killington and Pico, which donated the land for the new lodge.

Fernandez added that, "Pico will be raffled off for a private ski day." The tickets are $100 each but only 500 will be sold. The drawing will occur in March and the winner will get to choose a Tuesday or Wednesday (days Pico is normally closed) in 2013-14 to host up to 500 of their friends and family on the slopes that day "This is an example of how Killington (the two areas are siblings with the same president and general manager), Pico, and the community believe in us and are making the new building happen," she said, noting they still have "a way to go to raise all the funds needed for the project."

Empowerment is Contagious
It was through Vermont Adaptive that Jack Rasmussen began skiing when he was in first grade. His mom Sarah credits "his wonderful instructors" with his being able to ski with the family.

"We are a skiing family, that is what we do. We wanted Jack to share that with us and not stay at home with a babysitter," she noted.

As a baby Jack had been diagnosed at Boston Children's Hospital as having Dup 15q Syndrome (formerly know as Idic 15,) a rare chromosome disorder that "the doctors didn't know a lot about. They sent us on our way, saying early intervention was important," Sarah explained.

A child born with the syndrome has extra genetic material from chromosome 15 and typically has 47 chromosomes in their body cells instead of 46. This causes delays in language development and motor skills such as walking or sitting up. Low muscle tone, seizures, short stature, mental retardation, or autism may be among the challenges. Early diagnosis, physical, occupational, and speech therapies along with special education techniques help them to develop to their full potential.

Sarah Rasmussen recalled a momentous occasions when Jack's therapist announced she would bring a walker to start Jack walking. When she showed up without it, Sarah's heart sank - until her 'why' was answered with "we are going to teach him to walk without one." And he did.

Equally talented Vermont Adaptive instructors sent his mother's spirits soaring again. They not only taught him to ski but when he was in the third grade, they took him off the harness in his midweek ski lessons with the Sherburne Elementary School winter sports program at Killington.

After one rest stop, Jack took off first, and someone exclaimed, "Follow our leader." Like that day in Snowmass, my spirits soared.
And that's what I found when I talked to people on chairlift rides up the mountain. They noticed kids and adults in the program, and often commented "how wonderful" or "It's great to see what they can do - we ski better for watching them."

After several runs with Jack and then with mono skier Ann Williams, I skied the steepish and slick Bronco and realized he was right. Instead of holding back, I tried a little harder, pushing my old legs to 'one more run' four times.

Empowered, my spirits soared again!