Gaining independence back through adaptive skiing
New England Handicapped Sports Association (NEHSA) offers adaptive skiing, snowboarding and kayaking lessons to people of all ages and all disabilities.
The non-profit is staffed by volunteers and is open seven days a week at Mount Sunapee Resort in Newbury. It also offers an outreach program with instructors who will travel with equipment to other mountains to provide lessons.
"After an injury, people feel like less of a person than they were before they were in a hospital bed and programs like us show them paths they can take so they can regain their life or sports, and to still be social in their new reality," NEHSA Executive Director Tom Kersey said.
Kersey compared adaptive sports to creative puzzle-building.
"People come in and we identify what piece is missing and how we can supplement with adaptive equipment or training ...," he said.
NEHSA has 58 pieces of equipment that fit all types of body sizes. They include a sit ski that utilizes one ski called a mono ski, a bi ski that uses two skis and a rider bar for a snowboard that is waist-level and allows the snowboarder who may have mobility or balance issues to have contact with the snowboard using two feet and two arms.
A paraplegic who wanted to ski might use a mono or bi ski, Kersey said. Someone with mobility and balance issues might ski standing up with a ski walker, using their own skis plus two on the walker so they have four skis.
Specialized equipment is not always needed, he said. For example, an autistic child might only need certain instructions. A skier with Alzheimer's may have muscle memory problems, and the family needs help to keep them safe while skiing.
"A lot of this is taking that piece that is missing and giving it back and we have students understand that they can live their lives beyond their disability and the disability does not define them," Kersey said.
NEHSA has a Para Olympics Sports Club that locates promising athletes and helps put them on the path to the podium.
Typically, NEHSA has 60 lessons a day on weekends and 20 on weekdays. Last year, the association provided 7,000 hours of snowsports and 2,000 hours of kayaking lessons. It offers services to hundreds of families, disabled veterans and Special Olympians.
Earlier this week, NEHSA went Mt. Southington in Connecticut and worked with 20 students.
"We loaded the truck up with equipment and 11 instructors and drove down for lessons. It's an under-served population so we went and did it," Kersey said.
McIntyre Ski Area in Manchester, Pats Peak in Henniker and Okemo regularly uses NEHSA to provide lessons.
"Some schools have skiing as an option for gym class, but children with special needs are shut out," Kersey said. "Mountains call us and we find out the needs and send the right equipment and instructors to facilitate the lessons for them."
As a nonprofit, volunteers are very important. NEHSA provides instructors training and offers continuing education, Kersey said.
"It's all about growth and seeing a new volunteer come in and wanting to make a difference in someone's life and giving them the tools to help change someone's life," he said.
He added: "The feeling the instructors get from giving someone their independence back is priceless and the student who regains their life back is priceless. A couple times a month someone comes to me and says, 'Thank you for the best day of my life.' And it's not always the instructors."
For more information, call 603-763-9158 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other adaptive ski programs include Crotched Mountain Accessible Recreation and Sports (CMARS), New England Disabled Sports at Loon Mountain and Adaptive Sports Partners of the North Country (ASPNC) at Cannon Mountain.
Slopeside runs every Friday during the ski season. Kathleen Humphreys can be reached at email@example.com.