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WASP continues to build capacity

Rotarians bring in expert for instructor-training session

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There are not many people who would give up the biggest powder day of the year to learn new teaching skills and equipment, but that’s how dedicated instructors and volunteers from the Whistler Adaptive Sports Program really are.

For four days last week WASP played host to Beth Fox from the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD) in Winterpark, Colorado, which is recognized around the world for its leading edge programs. Fox, who has been an adaptive ski instructor for the past 22 years, was leading a course on serving the needs of people with cognitive disabilities, sometimes combined with physical disabilities.

The goal, according to WASP executive director Chelsey Walker, is to build capacity within the club by training instructors to train other instructors how to use various tools and techniques.

"We have a lot of great people in the organization, but it helps to bring in someone like Beth who has been doing this for a long time and can answer questions and show us things to do with our skiers we might not have thought of that could make the experience even better," she said.

"Instructors also need to have confidence with what they’re doing, and it helps to know that you’re using the same techniques they’re using at the National Sports Center for the Disabled, which is pretty much the leader in this field."

According to Walker, WASP started out focusing on skiers with physical disabilities, but the demand for instructors to work with people with cognitive disabilities continues to grow. She estimates that approximately 60 per cent of WASP clients are cognitively impaired.

Some of the tools they use include harnesses, different bras to keep ski tips together, bungee cords and dividers to keep the tails of skis apart. The progression means taking one different element over the course of a lesson as the client begins to get the hang of turning and stopping.

Communication is especially important with people that have cognitive disabilities, and most clients will understand things differently.

Fox teaches skiers, snowboarders and cross-country skiers with a wide range of disabilities. Some of her past students have gone on to represent the U.S. at the Paralympics, while others compete in the Winter Special Olympics.

Although it’s inspiring to see her students take their sport to the highest level, she still believes participation and accessibility are the most important aspects of an adaptive program.

"Helping people to achieve their goals is what it’s all about, so it’s important that we have contests, we have the Paralympics, because it’s a motivator for some people who watch and say to themselves ‘I can do that’. They’re role models.

"The goal has always been accessibility, which is why WASP and (NSCD) have a lot in common. First and foremost we share the same mission and that’s to provide services for people with special needs. We both offer programs for sit-down, stand-up disabilities, children and adults. We both are filling a void so people with special needs can recreate like other members of their families and their friends. The mountains are for everybody."

According to Fox, the whole adaptive movement in the U.S. started more than 35 years ago when veterans began to return from the Vietnam War. Money was diverted into rehabilitation programs, and once some of the logistics were figured out Winterpark began to offer programs to amputees at the Children’s Hospital in Denver.

Since then the program has grown by leaps and bounds, expanding into every possible winter and summer sport. The NSCD now boasts a full time staff of 55 administrators and instructors, as well as over 800 volunteers.

By way of comparison, WASP is still in its infancy with just six years in operation. This is the first year that the group has had a full time staff member, and only the second year with dedicated full-time instructors employed by Whistler-Blackcomb. Altogether WASP has a roster of 55 instructors or volunteers.

Growth has been steady, along with the demand for services. In recent years WASP has expanded into adaptive Nordic skiing and snowboarding, and is starting to offer summer programs as well, prompting a name change from the Whistler Adaptive Ski Program to the Whistler Adaptive Sports Program.

A few former clients are now on the national team, including Whistler’s Brad Lennea who was named to the Paralympic team this week.

According to Fox, WASP is on the right track with its programs.

"For example, WASP took a huge step forward by hiring instructors to add to their volunteer instructor base," she said. "It creates consistency and a pool of experience that the program can draw from, and will result in better trained and more dedicated volunteers.

"You always need people who can teach other instructors."

Fox says she was impressed by the professionalism within the organization itself, and says it will only be a matter of time before the program takes on a life of its own.

"When starting out, groups like WASP generally spend more time fundraising than anything, but once you have your regular clients – and they’ll seek you out from around the world – the programs and the fundraising start to take care of themselves," said Fox.

Offering programs for people with cognitive disabilities is particularly challenging, which is why it is also so rewarding, says Fox.

"One of the philosophies to therapeutic programs like this (is they) can help people to advance their goals in life," she said. "The immediate goal is to go skiing, but that’s just the vehicle. What if you linked learning skiing with learning to read? It may seem like a stretch, but learning to read is about progression and concentration and reaching little goals along the way, like in skiing.

"The idea is to take these skills they learn on the hill and apply them. And there are other benefits, like socialization, accessibility, independence and confidence."

Fox’s involvement with WASP was funded by the International Skiing Fellowship of the Rotarians, as well as the Rotary Club of Whistler. The Rotarians have held fundraisers for WASP for five years, and in the past year have raised $11,000 – $5,000 to help cover the cost of an elevator at Olympic Station to get disabled skiers to the chairlift and magic carpet, $5,000 to the B.C. Disabled Ski Team for uniforms, and $1,000 for cross-country skier Tyler Mosher, who is looking to compete at home in the 2010 Paralympics.

"We’ve been involved with WASP for five years now, from helping the cabin get built, to getting the equipment… and we will remain involved," said Ross Harlow, the incoming president of the Rotary Club of Whistler. "We’re always impressed when we come out here to see all the good work that WASP is doing, and the dedication of the people involved. I think more volunteer work has gone into this than most people realize, and they deserve all the support they can get."

While Scotiabank is one of WASP’s biggest financial contributors, there’s no denying the fact that Whistler-Blackcomb makes the program possible.

According to ski school general manager Otto Kamstra, their role is to provide behind the scenes support for the program – hiring and paying instructors, providing logistical and administrative support, purchasing uniforms, and incorporating WASP into decision making.

"It’s not a money making program even though it’s busy, it does run a negative balance and we cover that," Kamstra said.

"We support the workers and volunteers with uniforms, human resources, and things like that…so WASP can focus on fundraising and delivering a top product."

One example of how WASP is incorporated into Whistler-Blackcomb decisions is the 600-foot magic carpet at Olympic Station. The standard width for a carpet is 45 cm (18 inches), but the company decided to go with a 76 cm (30-inch) version to meet the needs of disabled skiers.

"We consult with WASP and disabled athletes when we design and build new lifts and buildings. We’re not perfect yet, but we’re definitely working towards full accessibility in the future," said Kamstra.

"We think (WASP) is phenomenal, and we’re proud to be a part of it. The level of volunteerism and the passion of the people behind the scenes, like the WASP board – it’s such an immense effort."