OUT: Disabled Skiing February 04, 2009

Outdoors adaptive sports program helps disabled.

Gordon Harbert takes off on a run during a ski race sponsored by Colorado Discover Ability. The adaptive sports program offers a year-round slate of outdoors activities for all types of disabilities. art by Susan Capps, special to The Daily Sentinel



FIVE-YEAR-OLD MADELYN SWELSTAD lifts her arms as Mark Rothwell and Joanne Black (partly hidden in back), volunteers with Colorado Discover Ability, fasten her into a specially designed sit-ski at Powderhorn Resort. Colorado Discover Ability has its annual fundraiser ski benefit Saturday at Powderhorn Resort.



POWDERHORN RESORT — Her cheeks rosy and her eyes bright from a morning of sun and snow, 5-year-old Madelyn Swelstad waits patiently for her mother, Kathy, to finish bundling her for yet another round of skiing.

It’s Sunday at Powderhorn Ski Resort, and Madelyn is getting dressed to ski with Mark Rothwell, one of the volunteer instructors for Colorado Discover Ability, the year-round adaptive sports program based in Grand Junction.

Madelyn seems as chipper as most 5-year-olds, but Kathy says Madelyn is special in another way.

“She has spinal muscular atrophy Type 2,” said Kathy and, seeing a confused look, explains it’s a degenerative illness of the spinal cord that affects the muscle function in Madelyn’s legs and core area.

“Without CDA she wouldn’t be able to do this,” said Kathy, lovingly stuffing Madelyn into a sky-blue helmet, bright-pink coat and purple coveralls. “We want her to experience this whole this, the skiing, it’s something she can share with the rest of the family.”

Kathy said Madelyn spends the morning session stand-up skiing to work on her leg strength, while afternoon sessions are spent riding in a sit-ski, basically a fiberglass chair on skis.

“She loves to ski the powder and the bumps,” said Kathy, cooing softly at her child.

You don’t have to stand around long in CDA’s compact dressing room/office at the Powderhorn base area before you hear “sharing with the rest of the family” repeated like a mantra.

It comes from nearly everyone involved with Colorado Discover Ability and its innovative slate of offerings designed for disabled persons. After nearly two decades, CDA has evolved into one of the state’s leading outdoors adaptive sports programs.

With 80 or so volunteer instructors working with several hundred students of almost all ages, Colorado Discover Ability offers winter and summer programs for people with a wide range of disabilities. It’s a village of different people with different strengths, perhaps the most common strength being adaptability.

“The CDA volunteers never blink an eye,” said Karen Kiefer, an adapted physical education teacher with School District 51. “They never learn who we’re bringing up here until we get here and the volunteers never miss a step.”

Almost all of the personal instruction is one-on-one, a rare opportunity for disabled students caught in the funding crunch of public schools.

“Special education usually is pretty controlled and CDA provides that one-on-one teaching experience you can’t always get elsewhere,” Kiefer said.

The school district sends 12 students each Thursday in the winter to ski with CDA. The district pays transportation and teacher salaries, but the students, who rotate through the program due to its popularity, have to raise funds to pay CDA for discounted lift tickets and ski rentals, both subsidized by Powderhorn Resort.

Kiefer, grateful for the school district supporting the winter program, says the lessons learned on snow extend into the students’ everyday lives.

“It’s a chance for the students to learn trust and freedom,” Kiefer said. “Being up here, doing the same activities their peers are doing, builds confidence. They come away with a feeling of accomplishment and that carries over in their school work and the way they feel about themselves.”

Jennifer Diaz, a second grade teacher at Dos Rios Elementary, was spending her day off learning to be a CDA volunteer. She had brought with her 8-year-old Joshua Seglem, one of Diaz’s five hearing-impaired students.

It didn’t take long for the normally shy Joshua to become a typical 8-year-old, Diaz said.

“We’ve seen so much improvement in his behavior and his self-esteem, it’s amazing,” Diaz said. “Up here, we’ve seen a lot of his strengths emerge. He just blew us away.”

Joshua was skiing that day with CDA volunteer Tom McLamb of Cedaredge, the CDA 2008 Volunteer of the Year.

McLamb, retired Navy and retired math teacher, softens considerably when he talks about students such as Joshua.

“The program is so good for the kids, and when they get back into the classroom her job is so much easier,” he said, pointing at Diaz.

So it takes more than a village. It takes a school district and it takes an entire community.
Diaz sees learning to volunteer as “a way to give back to the community.”

And McLamb, who spends at least four days each week at Powderhorn, sees volunteering as the chance to give kids an opportunity they might not have otherwise.

“A lot of them come from families who never think about skiing,” he said, with a look of amazement. “Can you believe that? Look at this place, it’s wonderful.”

You can give something by participating in the CDA Ski Benefit Challenge Race Saturday at Powderhorn Resort.

Up on the hill, Madelyn Swelstad is getting fidgety as CDA volunteers Mark Rothwell and Joanne Black securely fasten Madelyn into a sit-ski. Buckled, booted, helmet on and ready to go, she suddenly lifts her head.

“Let’s go,” she commands, and Rothwell laughs.

“Yes, your majesty,” he responds, and pushes her toward the lift.

It’s another day in the village that CDA calls home.


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