Ready and able: Vermont Adaptive provides sports for every body

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 2/3/10]

For a person with disabilities, the prospect of enjoying outdoor recreation and physical activities like skiing, cycling or hiking might be regarded as an impossible reality. At Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports, impossible is not a reality.

Founded by a small group of skiers at Mt. Ascutney in 1987, the vision is simple: use sports and recreation to foster self-confidence and independence in people with disabilities.

Since then, the organization has steadily grown into a thriving and nimble nonprofit that offers a wide variety of recreational programs to people of all ages across much of Vermont.

“The impact is immeasurable,” said Erin Fernandez, Vermont Adaptive executive director of 10 years, of the organization’s ability to empower participants. “The self-confidence and independence gained in these programs translates to other parts of life. It breaks down boundaries.”

With her staff of six and more than 400 volunteers, Fernandez coordinates around 3,000 adventures each year. These adventures can range from downhill skiing and snowshoeing to indoor rock climbing, horseback riding and sailing on Lake Champlain.

While dozens of sports and recreational activities are now offered, skiing still remains at the heart of the organization. More than 300 of Vermont Adaptive’s 400-plus volunteer corps are ski and snowboard instructors in the organization’s programs at Pico, Sugar-bush and Bolton Valley.

Fernandez characterizes all her volunteers as “passionate” individuals coming from all walks of life.

“They’re the backbone of our organization,” she said. “We can’t do it without them.”

Indeed, the commitment of Vermont Adaptive’s adult and junior volunteers is undeniable. Training is intensive and, because of the organization’s desire to be as inclusive as possible, covers a wide range of disciplines, instructing volunteers on how to attend to the needs of individuals with both physical and cognitive disabilities.

Volunteers work with clients (both individuals and groups) to help them get comfortable on the equipment and to teach them the fundamentals of the sport. This can often be a frightening step; though, Fernandez noted that when working with children, it is often the parents looking on who are more nervous.

“The volunteers are good at putting everyone at ease,” she said.

Overall, the experience is positive for everyone. It is transformative for the participant – the sense of breaking a boundary, accomplishing something that he or she had never thought possible. For parents and families, it’s a chance to see their loved one defining him or herself by what they can do rather than by what they can’t.

There is also a built-in sense of community. At times, people with disabilities may feel isolated in their everyday lives; they may not know anyone else like them. These programs allow for not only the individual but also the family to socialize and share experiences with those in similar situations.

Part of volunteer training also includes getting acquainted with the equipment. Much of the equipment Vermont Adaptive uses is modified to fit the needs of persons with disabilities. Handcycles, tandem bikes, sit-skis and even deep-keeled sailboats that don’t easily tip are essential to their programs.

Not surprisingly, specialized equipment comes at a higher price. A typical sit ski costs about $3,000.

“The price of equipment can prohibit people from buying it on their own,” Fernandez said.

Vermont Adaptive does its best not to pass these costs on to their clients (some programs are even free). While the organization receives no state funding, programs are underwritten through sponsorships, donations, fundraising and “great support from local businesses.”

“No one is turned away,” said Fernandez.

One group that Vermont Adaptive has been welcoming more and more in recent years is veterans with disabilities, which Fernandez said is “a growing population.”

Vets can participate in programs free of charge and Vermont Adaptive is actively reaching out to them and working with veteran organizations to bring more vets into the fold.

Since Vermont Adaptive trains its volunteers in psychological disabilities as well as physical ones, it is uniquely positioned to work with vets who have PTSD. Fernandez noted that some volunteers are being trained to be specialists for veterans with PTSD, which requires a heightened sensitivity.

Looking ahead, Fernandez says it’s an “exciting time” for Vermont Adaptive. The organization’s board, which draws from around the state, is revisiting its strategic plan and setting new goals.

Fernandez cites a need for more staff, more diverse equipment and more summer programs — all accomplished at a sustainable pace, she is quick to note.

According to Fernandez, the organization wants to provide programming that combines recreation and sports with outdoor and environmental education. Part of that vision includes making Vermont state parks more accessible and having staff onsite to run programs.

Acknowledging that Vermont Adaptive has become “part of the fabric of the community,” Fernandez is optimistic that it can become a leader in New England, breaking down boundaries, raising awareness and providing increasingly diverse opportunities for everyone.

Learn more about Vermont Adaptive at www.vermontadaptive.org.

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