Monday, March 16, 2015

RSU14 enriches the lives of its special education students by taking them downhill - By Michelle Libby

Last Monday was one of the best days of the season at Shawnee Peak. For 11 students in the Adaptive Ski Program sponsored by Shawnee Peak, this was the last day of their 7-week program and they were all headed to Rabbit Run. This was the first slope they had tried that had a chair lift.  
“Anne Blake is the RSU 14 physical therapist who makes this great program happen—of course along with the RSU 14 Special Education Teachers and Educational Technicians,” said Phil Potenziano, director for student services at RSU14.

The program got new life in the RSU four years ago when physical therapist Blake agreed to take the program over. Students at Windham Middle School, Jordan-Small Middle School and Windham High School who are involved in the Life skills and in the Autism programs hit the slopes on Mondays for two and a half hours. 

The program is paid for by the special education department at RSU14. “It’s really inexpensive for what they get,” said Blake. For the 7-weeks, including volunteers and rentals, a lift ticket and use of the lodge, the cost is $50 per student. 

 “It’s not just about the skiing. It’s about ethics, behavior and posture. They put on the equipment and it’s a multi-faceted life skill,” said Blake. “We’re doing more than going down the mountain.”  

“You get addicted to [the program],” said volunteer Maureen McDevitt. She and her skier Annie sang songs all the way up the chair lift. McDevitt started volunteering after volunteer Beverly Bears told her that she had an opportunity for her. Bears volunteers four times a week and has a full-time job. McDevitt never looked back.

 “It gets these kids out in the fresh air. It’s physical activity and socialization. Doctors have said a lot of these kids have improved balance greatly since starting this program,” said co-director Charles Scribner. “Before kids like this were institutionalized and never had the opportunity.” The other director, who was also supervising, is Ross Graham. 

For the most part, the program is one-to-one with one adult volunteer or education technician. Shawnee Peak provides seven or eight volunteers, depending on the day. The students use adaptive ski equipment with tethers, cords and metal links tying the skis together and helmets.   

The students all started on the magic carpet slope that uses a conveyer belt to move the skiers to the top of a small hill.

The goals of the program are to be independent, have fun and stay safe,” said Scribner. 

“The non-skiers are invaluable,” Blake said of the two staff members who attended the program to help the skiers on and off the chairlift as well as assist with equipment issues. 

Al Curns is retired, has been a skier for 65 years and he spends five days a week at the mountain volunteering his time. “It’s nice if you can get the same kids. Every kid is different. We strive for the best they can be,” Curns said. 

“I liked fun and being outside, and a day off from school,” said Ben Silva, 13, from Windham Middle School. 

Shawnee Peak’s Adaptive Ski Program sees 16 different groups Monday through Friday, with three groups each day. The non-profit sees 100 skiers from elementary school to adults who take advantage of the program. Ten to 13 volunteers supplement the school departments that can’t find enough adults to ski with the students. 

Although no one used one from RSU14, the program also has a bi-ski for wheelchair bound skiers in addition to the other adaptive equipment. 

Ginger Whiteside, 14, from Windham High School said her favorite part was “taking the boots off at the end of the day,” but then stood in front of the group and said, “This year I had so much fun. Last year I was scared.” 

Volunteer Glenn Yale joined the program two years ago. Some of the skiers are apprehensive, but we tell them “I won’t let you get hurt. It’s about building up trust,” he said. “I’m thankful for the program.” 

“At first it was pretty scary, but then it turned out to be okay,” said Cameron Malone, 13, from Windham Middle School, who said his favorite part of skiing was the chair lift. 

Not all of the students stayed on the Rabbit Run, choosing to head to the top of the mountain to show off their skills. 

Fifteen-year-old Lucas Maloney-Spiller from Windham High School had a fun ski day. “We went all the way to the top. We had the best time. We laughed. I hit jumps,” he said. He has been involved in the program for two or three years and said that he gets better every year. The best part of skiing for him, “Going all the way to the top to see the mountains and the view.” 

The program at Shawnee Peak is 25 years old, said Scribner. “Most of these kids look forward to coming,” he added. Some students continue to ski after the program is over. “I’m sorry that most won’t have an opportunity to do it on their own.”

The program has one large fundraiser each year, The Moose Pond Half Marathon and 5K. The proceeds go to scholarships and awards. This year at the program pizza party, the students received a T-shirt that matched the theme of the season “Pushing the Limit”. The shirts said, “I pushed the limits – Shawnee Peak Adaptive Ski Program 2015.” 

“We measure the progress with smiles here,” Curns said. 

The next adventure for these students is getting ready for the Special Olympics swim meet April 3 and then the Special Olympics track meet at Bonny Eagle on May 1. This year they will also attend the state meet at Orono from June 5 to 7.

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