16 January 2010

For 25 Years, Therapy on the Slopes

DREAM Adaptive gives recreation opportunities to people with disabilities

DREAM Adaptive Recreation volunteer Bob Zahller, center, helps guide Phillip Sotello into a turn while descending Big Mountain under Chair Six at Whitefish Mountain Resort as Ryan McCoy follows closely behind. - Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon

By Myers Reece, 01-12-10
WHITEFISH MOUNTAIN RESORT – The therapy is in the snow. It’s on the mountains, in the base lodge and on the bus rides.

Once a week during winter, high school students with disabilities head to Whitefish Mountain Resort to ski, train for the Special Olympics and, above all, have a lot of fun. For many of them, it’s unlike any other experience of their lives.

Their ticket to the mountain is DREAM Adaptive Recreation Inc., an organization established in 1985 to give disabled children and adults access to recreational opportunities in the Flathead Valley. DREAM stands for “Disabled Recreation and Environmental Access Movement.”

“There’s a huge amount of emotional therapy involved in being able to finally go out and finally access these things,” said Bruce Gibson, DREAM’s program director.

Twenty-five years ago, a small group of Flathead residents set out to expand accessibility to both recreational locations and activities for people with special needs. This was five years before the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Among the earliest leaders of this forward-thinking group were Dottie Maitland, Larry Dominick, Dennis Jones and Jane Lopp. They collaborated with the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies to create Glacier National Park’s Trail of the Cedars, a hiking trail that is conducive to disabled access, with a paved portion and a boardwalk.

In addition, they worked on accessibility surveys, along with projects at Foys Lake and Woodland Park, Lopp said. And they created perhaps their most defining legacy, the ski program at Whitefish Mountain Resort. Lopp is pleased to see Gibson continuing and expanding upon DREAM’s vision.

“I’m so glad Bruce is doing all he’s doing,” Lopp said.

The kids who traveled up to Whitefish Mountain Resort last week attend Glacier and Flathead high schools. They represent only a percentage of the total population that DREAM serves. The organization works with roughly 200 people with disabilities each year, Gibson said, about two-thirds of whom are kids.

The nonprofit assists people of many different disabilities, both physical and cognitive. The list includes cerebral palsy, autism, muscle degeneration, Down syndrome, amputees, paraplegics and others. Gibson is the only full-time staff member. The rest are volunteers.

“We have people that can work with about anyone,” Gibson said. “It’s pretty much across the board.”

DREAM Adaptive differs somewhat from the Bozeman-based Eagle Mount program, mostly in the area of professional therapy. Eagle Mount is more therapy based, while DREAM is more recreation based, Gibson said. But Gibson points out: “Therapy comes from getting out and skiing.”

“They’re structured a little bit differently, but for the most part they’re doing the same thing,” Gibson said.

The nonprofit also started a summer program in 2009 with water skiing, tubing and kayaking at Echo Lake. The program will continue, and perhaps expand, in future summers, Gibson said.

The “adaptive” skiing movement started in Colorado in the late 1970s, Gibson said. It has grown exponentially since then. There are adaptive programs in countries such as New Zealand and France, as well as in other states, but Gibson said “almost everything adaptive comes out of Colorado.” DREAM’s program was modeled after one in Winter Park, Colo.

DREAM Adaptive doesn’t charge for any of its services. It relies on community donations, grants and a large fundraiser held each year on the Friday before Valentine’s Day. The event, scheduled for Feb. 12 at the Hilton Garden Inn this year, features live big band music, dancing, dinner and auctions – both live and silent.

Also, the organization negotiates a yearly agreement with Whitefish Mountain Resort. It receives an unlimited amount of lower chairlift tickets for its participants and a fixed amount for the higher lifts. Volunteers who don’t have season passes get free tickets. When their volunteer time is done each day, they are free to use the rest of the day to ski.

The resort also provides DREAM with senior ski instructors and storage space. The required equipment list for skiers with disabilities is fairly large, including both bi and mono sit-skis, outriggers, gadgets that can either help spread legs or keep skis together, and more.

“Sometimes we just invent something based on individual needs,” Gibson said.

Volunteers must be intermediate skiers or better. Beyond that, they need no prior experience, Gibson said. After signing up, they take a training session. Then they are paired with skiers, with the advanced volunteers taking on more difficult tasks like guiding sit-skiers.

Gibson said his organization also seeks “off-snow” volunteers. These volunteers help with tasks such as grant writing and preparing for fundraisers. Donations are always needed as well, he said.

Last week was Chuck Cassidy’s first day as a ski volunteer, though he has followed the DREAM program for years. His son, Mark, has been skiing since 2004 and was one of the more accomplished skiers on the mountain on Jan. 7, if not the most enthusiastic. The gregarious 18-year-old Cassidy, a senior at Glacier High who has a learning disability, begins preparing for ski days a week ahead of time, his father said.

Cassidy, who saw many different school systems in his travels with the Navy, said the Kalispell school district has the best recreational program for kids with disabilities that he has seen. The district’s collaboration with DREAM is just one example, he said. There are also opportunities for activities such as softball, bocce, track and basketball.

“It’s really an awesome program,” Cassidy said. “The valley should be proud.”

Of the 13 high school students who skied last week, 12 were from Glacier and one was from Flathead, said Jodie McGough, who is the special education instructor at Glacier. A few of the regulars didn’t make the trip because of the cold.

The students ski with DREAM eight days per year to train for the Special Olympics, said Jenny Griswold, who teaches at Glacier and runs the Special Olympics program there.

“A lot of our kids never even have a chance to go fast in their lives,” Griswold said. “That’s why we’re up here when it’s 10 below.”

She added: “DREAM is the only way we have access to this.”

For more information on DREAM Adaptive Recreation Inc., and how to contribute, call (406) 862-1817, e-mail at dreamadaptive@yahoo.comor mail to P.O. Box 4084, Whitefish, MT 59937.

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