By Jenny Neyman
Being a physical therapist, Angela Beplat could rattle off the skills the kids were working on as they participated in a learn-to-ski event for kids with special needs Saturday afternoon at Tsalteshi Trails behind Skyview High School in Soldotna.
“You’re always trying to
work on core strength and bilateral coordination and all these different types of skills, but skiing is so cool because it’s an activity that naturally has all those kinds of things. It’s all there,” she said.
The parents — watching their kids laugh and play, concentrate on staying upright and tackle the difficulty of shuffling up a slope only to launch fearlessly back down it — could attest to the social and educational aspects of the event.
“They get to see kids from therapy or school, and it’s also good for them to be around older kids who are skiing,” said
Angela Lathrop, who brought her four adopted kids, ages 6 to 9, to the event. “It’s good to see them get out and do stuff, and it also raises their confidence. So many times with our kiddos with special needs you have to be so careful with safety and they don’t always understand the inherent danger in things.
So this is good that they can put on a helmet and go play and the worst thing that’s going to happen is they’re going to fall down and land in the snow.”
But to the 15 or so kids participating, Saturday’s event wasn’t about working on their social or physical skills. It wasn’t — bor-ing — an educational experience. It was just plain fun.
“I just liked that I got to ski. It was easy,” said Mercedes Norris, a junior at Soldotna High School.
Going down the hills was her favorite part. Going uphill, not so much. Still, after just one afternoon trying the sport, it already had new prominence in her list of favorite activities.
“Basketball and skiing,” she said.
“Oh, great. Skiing just jumped way up. Now I’m going to have to start looking for skis,” joked her dad, Dustin Norris.
But whatever time or expense he may be on the hook for in getting his
daughter outfitted with cross-country ski gear will be well worth the benefits that will come from Mercedes’ new activity — again, all that educational and social stuff — but, first and foremost, seeing the shy smile start as a twitch of the corners of her lips and spread into a full grin across her face.
“Look at that. You can’t beat that smile,” he said.
This is the second year the learn-to-ski event has been held. It takes a combination of efforts: Beplat organizes it, this year with the help of high school volunteer Olivia Fair; Diamond M Ranch is a sponsor; the Tsalteshi Trails Association hosts, grooms the snow
and lends its supply of youth ski gear; and volunteers — including Kenai Central Nordic ski coach D’Anna Gibson and students representing various ski teams in the area — offer one-one-one coaching.
“This was great for me. When you’ve got four that need assistance it’s nice to have the one on one because I can’t chase four of them,” Lathrop said. “I wish they’d do it more often. I’m very appreciative of the people who put it together.”
Lathrop brought her kids to the event last year, got them snowshoes for Christmas this year and, after Saturday, is already planning to get skis for Christmas next year.
“They just took off. Last year it took them a little bit to get going. This year, once they got their boots and skis on they just
went. As soon as they could go they were gone,” she said. “They definitely want to come out and try it some more now that they’ve been successful at it. They were so excited, they could not wait this morning.”
Seeing return skiers from last year was especially rewarding for Beplat in
making this a recurring event.
“That’s my biggest encouragement for doing it is seeing the kids from last year just take off with it and get inspired to go out and do some more things with it,” Beplat said.
Figuring out what gear is needed, much less how to operate it, can make skiing intimidating for anyone to learn, especially for kids from families with no background in the sport.
“That’s my biggest goal is to just expose families to getting out more in the winter, finding some outdoor hobbies and encouraging families
to get out and exercise. For a lot of families, they’ve never been exposed to skiing. They either didn’t grow up here or their families didn’t do it. But once they’re exposed to it, they’re like, ‘Oh, wow, where can I get skis? Where can I go ski?’ And they’re into it. They realize, ‘We can go out and do this on a Saturday. This could be something that our family could do together,’” Beplat said. “I figure, as long as we’re outdoors, we’re exercising, we’re doing something different, it’s awesome.”
Norris was particularly impressed with the turnout and support for the event.
“I think anything that involves special needs is great. They’re starting to get more and more things around the community for groups, but it’s definitely a niche that can be filled. You look at how many people are here. There’s a large support base from the families, but getting the community involved sometimes can be very difficult,” he said. “She (Mercedes) has five siblings, so she’s got extra encouragement from them, but a lot of these kids only have their family and people that work with them. The fact that they can come out and be with other people, besides their family, is great. I mean, she loves her family but we get old after awhile.”
What doesn’t get old is the thrill of learning something new. That’s something anyone of any age and ability level can do. The event had sled rides for kids with mobility issues, helmets and all the ski gear necessary for any sized kid, and Beplat said she may include snowshoeing next year for kids who aren’t quite ready to manage skis, so that anyone coming out can participate.
“Just giving them a chance to show they can do it, events like this are great for that. Get them out and get them doing,” Norris said. “All week long she was telling people, ‘I’m going skiing this weekend, I’m going to try it.’ She likes being active. She doesn’t like being on the sidelines, which a lot of these kids end up being, and events like this pulls them off the bench and gets them in the game. The sense of accomplishment, being proud of themselves, you can’t just give that. You can encourage it, but they get it from doing things themselves.”