Beth Paleczny never thought she’d see her six-year-old son, Noah, ski down a slope.
Diagnosed with cerebral palsy and autism, he lacks the co-ordination and muscle control required for downhill skiing.
But a new program implemented this past season at Giants Ridge Ski Resort in Biwabik, Mn. saw him doing just that.
The Adaptive Ski Program, available there for youths with physical disabilities, uses trained volunteers to assist participants with set-up on state-of-the-art adaptive equipment, skiing instruction, and using the chair lifts.
“I would never have thought that he’d be able to go skiing,” said Paleczny, who is note a skier herself.
“I can help him learn to skate or swim or hike, but not downhill ski,” she noted.
Paleczny wasn’t even aware of the program until it was brought to her attention by the wife of one of the volunteers, Brian Tolley, another Fort Frances resident.
“She said I should get you the pamphlet,” recalled Paleczny. “She did.
“We booked a time and went down.”
Noah participated in two sessions in February of the six offered this season.
He used a bi-ski—a sit ski featuring a moulded bucket seat and two skis that can be skied with the assistance of an instructor using stabilizing outriggers and tethers.
“He had a blast. He loved it,” enthused Paleczny, admitting at first she had some reservations about it because Noah doesn’t take to “new” things easily.
“Somehow he figured out what was going on and it was a-OK,” she said.
She explained they put Noah in the chair, strapped him in, and got his helmet and goggles on. Then they took him up on the chair lift and went down the hill tethered by a volunteer.
“I had tears in my eyes the first time I watched him go up the ski lift,” she remarked.
“I can’t believe this is happening for him.
“He loves it and it’s something I couldn’t have given him.”
Paleczny said Noah likes to go fast, often making the sign for “fast” when they are talking about skiing.
“He’d like to be there every day,” she stressed, adding she’s sure he’ll continue with the program next winter.
“We might be on our way to a mono-ski—I’m not saying tomorrow or even next year,” she noted, explaining that once Noah gets better at it, he’ll be able to move his body back and forth to turn on the hill himself.
“He could probably even do this just with assistance getting up and down,” she continued.
“I don’t know enough about it, but I think it’s something he’ll carry on with.”
Paleczny said Noah has been doing great lately, especially since his skiing experience.
“He’s been really progressing, so this is just another piece in him becoming a bigger boy,” she enthused.
She’s grateful the Tolley family brought the program to her attention. And although Noah and Brian Tolley didn’t know each other really well, she said it was nice knowing her son wasn’t in the care of a stranger.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Tolley said about volunteering with the Adaptive Ski Program.
Tolley, a physical therapist who works in International Falls, had heard about adaptive skiing when Giants Ridge held a one-day session the previous year.
“As a physical therapist, I’m involved in working with people with disabilities, so it was just a logical extension of what I do,” he explained, adding he’s also an avid skier.
“I enjoy helping out,” Tolley said. “This year I learned to do the actual tethering, where you are holding on to the straps behind the bi-ski.”
He added the program allows children to participate in an activity they wouldn’t get to do otherwise.
“They get to go skiing with their family members,” Tolley explained. “It’s a great thing and all of the kids have lots of fun.
“They have just big smiles on their faces and it makes it all worth it.”
Tolley took part in three days of training and volunteered for three sessions this past season.
The Adaptive Ski Program is made possible by the Courage Center Duluth, in co-operation with Giants Ridge and the support of the Iron Range United Way.
The Courage Centre is a Minnesota-based, non-profit rehabilitation and resource centre that empowers people with disabilities to realize their full potential in every aspect of life.
“They are very big on the ‘Yes, I can’ attitude,” said Sheila Rothman, who co-ordinates the Adaptive Ski Program at Giants Ridge.
“You don’t have to sit on the sidelines,” she stressed. “There is a lot you can do and you might not even realize how much you can do.”
Rothman noted many other ski resorts in the state already had adaptive ski programs and Giants Ridge wanted to be able to offer it, as well.
“I helped to find volunteers, participants, and to co-ordinate the extensive training that you have to do to become a volunteer,” she explained.
“It’s not an easy thing to do to tether [the bi-skis].”
She added not only do they make sure the volunteers are able to ski down the hill tethering a bi-ski, but also that they can work with children with special needs and are qualified to do so.
Rothman said two volunteers are required per bi-ski to get a child safely down the hill.
“We couldn’t do it without volunteers,” she stressed. “They have to be a strong skier and have some physical strength, as well, because it’s not an easy task.
“That takes a couple years to get that going.”
She noted Tolley was an exceptional volunteer because he was able to do a lead tether the first year.
“Right now the program is limited to children, but we are hoping to expand that as we grow and develop,” Rothman indicated.
“We have a weight limit of 150 pounds right now only because we don’t have the experienced volunteers to be able to handle more weight than that at this time.
“But that is something we are going to build on,” she added. “This is just our first year, so our first concern is giving the participants the most safe lesson we possibly can.
“We’re taking baby steps.”
Rothman also noted the Adaptive Ski Program is available for anyone visiting Giants Ridge.
“This is not limited to children on the [Iron Range],” she stressed, noting while they got a late start with the program last season due to funding, they plan to get going again in the fall.
They will be offering the program on six Sundays, with a session in the morning and another one in the afternoon.
“And then on special occasions, say if a family is coming, if they just call ahead, we will make every effort to try to get volunteers available so that child can have a skiing experience, as well,” Rothman added.
“It’s a great program,” she enthused. “It’s so fantastic to see these families support these kids.
“It’s something they never imagined their child would have the opportunity to do.”
Rothman said many times parents would just start crying because they are so happy.
“The kids are excited and we are able to give them a really nice skiing experience,” she remarked.
“They are just like any other kid—they don’t have to be sidelined.”
For more information about the Adaptive Ski Program, either as a participant or volunteer, contact Rothman at 1-218-865-0174 or via e-mail at Sheila.Rothman@couragecenter.org