Saturday, January 8, 2011

Disabled skier program in California seeks more volunteers

From The Modesto Bee in Calif.:

Denis Sondeno remembers the first time he went skiing with the Society for Handicapped Children and Adults some 20 years ago.

The longtime skier and Turlock ski shop owner was there to help disabled people learn to ski. Turns out they helped him have the time of his life.

"Don't get me wrong, it's work," Sondeno said of helping to hoist paraplegic and quadriplegic people onto chairlifts. "Your back hurts, your legs hurt. But at the end of the day they're smiling and grinning at you and you say, 'Let's do it again.' "

Organizers of the program, started 25 years ago by the society, are looking for more volunteers like Sondeno. The requirements are simple: You must like snow and you must have transportation to Dodge Ridge.

"We could use anybody, really," said Sondeno, who helps direct the program. "Big, strong people who have been skiing for 30 years, that's good. But that's not the norm."

Needed are intermediate-level skiers, able to help push sit-skis, a kind of sled for those who can't walk. The organization also would like to recruit more expert skiers who can ski downhill backward, essential for helping blind people navigate the slopes.

Also needed are snowboarders to shadow disabled skiers, making sure others on the slopes don't crash into them. Even nonskiers, helpful when it comes to lifting people in and out of lifts, sit-skis and other adaptive devices, would be useful.

The ski program, for blind, deaf, paraplegic, quadriplegic and developmentally disabled individuals, began under the umbrella of the society, a nonprofit serving disabled people since 1948.

The society also loans medical equipment, coordinates rides to doctor appointments and offers water-skiing and golf programs to disabled people, among other services.

The snow-skiing program is unique, though, because of the number of disabled people who want to take part. Some 150 clients signed up to ski this season, which runs through March.

This is about twice as many people as two years ago, said Marci Boucher, executive director of the society.

"It helps them to feel like everyone else," Boucher said. "It give them self- confidence. For one day, it's all about them."

A stable of about 150 volunteers is on hand for the skiers, some of whom can ski with a bit of assistance and some of whom need several people to help them down the mountain.

The society likes to maintain a ratio of four volunteers per skier to ensure there are no mishaps. Organizers schedule about 10 disabled people to ski each week, in the order they signed up.

More volunteers, in addition to more funds to buy adaptive equipment, would mean each disabled person could ski more often.

The perks of being a volunteer: free lift tickets (bought by the society from Dodge Ridge at a reduced price) and discounted tickets for family members.

Oh, and having the time of your life.

"I tell people this is going to be one of the best Saturdays you'll ever have," Sondeno said.