Written by Winter Intern, Janice
After graduating from University Of Colorado almost three years ago with a degree in mechanical engineering, I never expected to be working with people with disabilities. It seemed like a field so distant my path would never cross it. Many of my friends had pursued the disabilities field, and I thought “Good for them. I am so glad they are doing that, because I never could”. I genuinely believed working with people with disabilities was something I would and could never do.
When I heard about the new Apprentice Pro position at Challenge Aspen I was pretty skeptical. I had never taught anything, let alone skiing, let alone to people with disabilities. My plan had been to move back to the Denver/Boulder area and find an engineering position following a yearlong break from the field, which had included a summer raft guiding in the Roaring Fork Valley. But the more I thought about it the more I realized how silly it was to move away from the place I love to ski more than anywhere else in the entire world, just in time for winter. The deadline for the new AP position drew nearer and I decided to apply. Before I knew it, I had been offered the job. I decided to go with my gut, stay in the mountains and join the Challenge Aspen team.
November 16th rolled around and I had no idea what to expect when we started our month-long training. The initial part of our training involved learning about some of the different cognitive and physical disabilities we would potentially be working with and how each would affect how they would participate on the snow—a dizzying list that included cerebral palsy, spinal cord injuries, various visual impairments, Down syndrome, autism and many more. Then we started learning about the Mandt system—how to deescalate situations and maintain effective physical, verbal and visual communication. How were we supposed to execute all of this, especially out on the snow?
Finally came the Challenge Aspen equipment room. There are mono skis, bi skies, sliders, outriggers, bibs, bindings, skis and many other pieces of equipment, each of which had to be specially fitted for every participant. Man, and I thought I was signing up to be a ski bum for the winter!
Our first assignment after training was a camp to teach the senior class of the Tennessee School for the Blind how to ski. Teaching a visually impaired person how to ski for the first time sounded terrifying. But after meeting our participants and seeing how excited they were to get out on the snow, things seemed to just fall in to place. My participant was even skiing powder at the end of his 3 days on the slopes!
My next assignment was 7 days at Aspen Mountain with a boy who has non-verbal autism. I had never worked with anyone with autism before, especially not someone who was non-verbal, and I was extremely nervous. Then we started skiing. By our second day I felt foolish that I’d had any concerns.
Now I am less and less nervous for each assignment. More importantly, I am realizing that all of our participants are more like me than I ever had imagined. They just want to slide down snow with the wind in their faces. They love skiing for the same reasons I do. Regardless of any physical or cognitive challenges, Challenge Aspen participants don’t want to be treated any different, in fact, most likely, just the opposite. Giving them the gift of skiing allows them to do something the rest of us are doing in a world where they might be restricted by so much. When I tell people I work for Challenge Aspen most reply, “Wow that must be so rewarding, good for you”. Honestly, it’s true. I get just as much out the experience as the participants I work with. I have learned and grown so much being able to work with so many special people, and am truly inspired by each and every one of them.
Looking back now, the motives I had for choosing Challenge Aspen seem so utterly ridiculous. If I had known just a fraction of how much fun, rewarding work I’d be doing, I would of signed up in a heartbeat, most likely years ago. I also cannot believe how scared and intimidated I was of teaching folks with disabilities how to ski and how far from those things it really is. I wouldn’t trade my time with Challenge Aspen for the world and am so excited to still have many more months a head of me as an assistant pro!