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Flying Without Wings – Feb. 23, 2012
by Leah Carey
Everyone on the slopes at Bretton Woods knows Bella Hibberd, a fifth grader at Bethlehem Elementary School in New Hampshire. As she prepares for her next run down the mountain, numerous classmates stop and give her a high-five or shout an encouraging “Looking good, Bella!”
Bella has cerebral palsy, and although she’s clearly excited to fly down the slope, she can’t do it on her own. She is sitting in a contraption called a bi-ski that has a bucket seat attached to two skis. She is surrounded by a team of volunteers who will glide her down the mountain, ensuring her comfort, safety and enjoyment.
This is the Bretton Woods Adaptive Sports and Recreation program and it serves hundreds of people with physical and developmental challenges every winter, giving them the opportunity to ski regardless of the challenges they face.
Executive Director Jonathan Brackett is an adaptive skier himself. He lost a leg in a motorcycle accident many years ago. “I’ve got friends who are lifelong skiers and they bugged me until I tried it.” He now skis with one ski and two outriggers, poles with modified skis at the bottom. Now he is passionate about giving the same experience to others.
As he watches Bella getting ready for another ride, he says, “You can’t always talk to them, but when they come back in and you hear them screaming, it’s unmistakable. They have their own language.” The huge grin that spreads across Bella’s face as she flies down the mountain is equally unmistakable.
Carl Schafer of Franconia, N.H., is the man guiding Bella’s bi-ski, using what’s called a “tether.” For students like Bella, who are not able to participate in their own navigation, Schafer drives the bi-ski down the hill. For students who are more able-bodied – and may even be learning to ski independently – Schafer’s tether is a safety precaution in the event that the skier loses control or needs help.
Phil Krill, also of Franconia, skis alongside Schafer and Bella as a “blocker.” He makes certain that the course is clear and no one accidentally runs into her. “Safety is the number one thing for the rider and the volunteer as well,” said Bracket. “There are a lot of people out there and not everyone understands the skier’s code of responsibility.”
The two men take Bella down a variety of runs during her two-hour lesson, including the NASTAR race arena and over small jumps. As she “gets air” over one of the jumps, her joy is once again obvious.
Her mother, April Hibberd, is also thrilled with the program. “She gets the experience of being at the top of a mountain and riding down,” she said. “We tried lots of things just because they were [handicap] accessible, like Girl Scouts. But she didn’t like it. She’s an adventurous kid. She goes hiking and swimming in the summer. She loves going fast!”
Everyone who skis with the program is a volunteer, and they’re just as enthusiastic. According to Warren Nash of Bartlett, N.H., “It gets under your skin and in your blood. We do a lot of good.”
There is an in-depth training for volunteers at the beginning of the winter and they will take anyone, regardless of their skiing experience. “It’s great if they ski. We’ll take them if they can’t and we’ll teach them,” said Bobbi Spillane. Schafer adds, “The training we get helps improve your own personal skiing.”
The program serves people of all ages with a wide range of disabilities from Down syndrome to amputations to autism. Each condition requires a different set of equipment. In addition to the bi-ski (which has two skis under the bucket), there are also the mono-ski, a snow slider, outriggers, the kart ski and more. Some skiers are on regular skis and learning how to deal with other challenges like loss of hearing or sight.
“Our goal is to make the students as independent as possible,” said Spillane. Another child in the program, Owen Horsley, a 3-year-old who has spina bifida, is on track to someday be an independent adaptive skier. In the meantime, his father Aaron is learning from the instructors how to tether the bi-ski. The family plans to purchase their own equipment.
“You don’t limit the possibilities, you just ride,” said Brackett. “Every student is different. What works with one might not work with another. We’ve had some wonderful success with autistic children coming out of their world and being able to ski with their families.”
The program is always eager for new volunteers, who receive a free ski pass in exchange for doing 12 days on the mountain. To learn more, visit www.bwadaptivesports.org.
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