A young participant in the Sky Tavern program poses for a photo. (Photo courtesy of Sky Tavern)
It’s one thing to get kids with disabilities out on skis enjoying the mountains and time outdoors.
It’s another thing to make it so that skiing is a sport they can pursue with their families and continue to do independently as they grow and mature.
“That really is the core foundation of the Ski Program,” said program director Greg Park. “It’s about removing barriers for children with disabilities and it’s really more than that; it’s empowering the children with disabilities to experience the freedom of the mountain. I always say the best sight is a wheelchair slope-side because that means that up on the hill is someone experiencing freedom that they can’t in day-to-day life.”
Sky Tavern, based in Reno, Nevada, is a nonprofit organization designed to introduce kids of all ages and abilities to both summer and winter outdoor sports and recreation. It was founded in 1995 by Bob Guerrero, a disabled Vietnam veteran and adaptive sports pioneer who was approached by the city of Reno to put together a program to serve disabled youth.
Park became involved in 1998. He was getting certified to serve as a guide for a ski buddy who was losing his vision when Guerrero told him they could use some more strong skiers to help out.
Today, the adaptive skiing program has about 15 to 20 volunteers, including a pair of retired Paralympic athletes. Reinhild Moeller, who competed for Germany, is the only alpine Paralympic athlete to win 19 medals. Her husband, Reed Robinson, competed in six Paralympic Games for the U.S. and won a pair of bronze medals.
“It’s about removing barriers and showing the kids look how far you can take it,” Park said of having Moeller and Robinson to look up to. “You can do anything you put your mind to.”
The program serves kids with disabilities ranging from physical to cognitive to neurological. They have equipment ranging from sit skis to three-track and four-track setups. From children who are non-verbal autistic to kids with cerebral palsy to those with spina bifida, spinal cord injuries or amputations, they’ll find a set-up that will work, Park said.
“When it clicks and the kid gets it, it’s such a rewarding thing for any of the volunteers,” he said. “There are kids that it’s taken a couple years to click. We had one non-verbal kid with autism and we didn’t know if he was picking up what we were laying down, but all of a sudden it just clicked. I don’t know why, I couldn’t tell you what it was, but it’s very rewarding when that happens.
“I also have a young girl with cerebral palsy and we put her in a sit ski. In her second season I said, ‘No, you’re not here for that. You’re here to learn to ski,’ and I put her in a snow slider. I don’t think there’s anything stopping her now. We make sure to customize it to the individual.”
They also strive to make sure that if one or both parents know how to ski, they also know how to assist their child. That way, Park said, family ski vacations can include everyone and the sport becomes something that everyone can do together.
Although the program has always been geared toward kids, they have worked with adults on a case-by-case basis. They were recently approached by the High Fives Foundation, Park said, to expand the program to serve adults as well. They are also partnering with the organization to host the annual Military to the Mountains program, serving veterans with disabilities, later on this month.
Not to leave the summer sports out, another recent project has been building adaptive mountain bike trails that are wide enough to accommodate adaptive equipment.
Many of the kids come back year after year.
“We do notice growth,” Park said. “And it’s not just about the skiing or the snowboarding. They’re developing confidence and skills, and that will last the rest their lives. It’s great to see these kids mature and progress.”