So it is that time of year again! The Big Apple Skiers have trekked to the Adapted Sports Center in Crested Butte, Colorado, for the third year in a row! For those of you who are new to our blogs, Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) in New York City sponsors a unique winter camp for children with special needs and abilities who have been under the care of an HSS physician or rehabilitation therapist to The Adapted Sports Center (ASC) in Crested Butte, Colorado. As a pediatric physical therapist at HSS and a group leader to the ASC, this is my second opportunity experiencing this wonderful program that both HSS and ASC have made possible. I am so fortunate and thankful to be in this position writing to you all today, and I am even more excited to share the wonderful stories of a few members of our remarkable group who never cease to amaze me with their creativity, wit, caring nature, teamwork, and perseverance each day.
This year, the team decided to narrow the age group of individuals participating in the ASC Winter Camp to teenagers between the ages of 14-19 to allow for natural, social peer interaction. We wanted the teenagers to bond as they share in the exciting and challenging experiences of adolescence, an already trying time, in addition to contending with the often heightened awareness of their unique differences. The six teens from NY interacted like family in their Colorado home as they belted out songs to the Grammy’s, played pool and foosball, and encouraged each other to do their best on the slopes. I knew we were going to have a fantastic trip when Isaiah, a first time participant and skier, asked, “Why can’t we stay here for two weeks instead of one?” just minutes after stepping into our home away from home.
The goal of our intense trip to Mount Crested Butte is not only to increase the boys and girls strength, balance, and skiing skills, but also to enhance their confidence and independence. As a physical therapist with a strong passion for empowering teenagers with special needs transition to adulthood, I am constantly seeking ways to instill an awareness of life-long fitness and to increase the individual’s participation in the community with their peers. Unlike the infamous saying, ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,’ we aspire for these teenagers to take at least one positive skill that they learned about themselves from Colorado home to NY and on to wherever they go in their bright futures. Here are the powerful stories of our 2015 Big Apple Skiers.
Rosemary stepped up her game this year without even knowing it. We were hoping our return skiers would in some way be mentors to the younger and newer participants to the group and Rosemary did just that in her own natural way. Rosemary appears shy and reserved on the outside, but Rosemary is a fighter. She was born with cerebral palsy (CP) and has been seeking greater independence since she was a young child, wanting not to be treated any different than anyone else, and certainly not wanting any pity or special treatment. On the first night after dinner and before a serious game of Smurf Monopoly, Rosemary offered to share the essay she wrote for her college applications. Rosemary expressed how her friend, Sara, another child with CP who she met on the winter camp two years ago, not only encouraged her to persevere on the slopes by shouting, “You can do it!” but also increased Rosemary’s confidence to not let people or events hold her (me) back from opportunities. She goes on to explain how the events at The ASC inspired her to recognize that she (I) could face anything. This is a true example of the lasting friendships and feelings of success gained on this week long adventure. In addition, Rosemary accomplished her physical goal of skiing completely free from physical guidance except for the verbal cues from her instructor. She exclaimed, “Today was the best day on the slopes ever!” Please stay tuned for Rosemary’s full story as she plans to upload it to the HSS Back in the Game testimonial.
Valeria, another return skier and teenage girl who walks with a walker due to the physical limitations presented by cerebral palsy, was faced with a big decision on the mountain this year: to continue to stand-up ski with the special equipment that would always require her to ski with a trained instructor, or to attempt to maneuver a mono-ski with the potential of being independent with time and practice, eventually breaking free from physical assistance. For a person that strives to increase leg strength, balance, and coordination on a daily basis, taking the leap to carve, skid, and use the strength of her upper body and core to navigate the slopes of a Colorado mountain was a big deal. Valeria confidently took her instructor up on the challenge and stated, “Independence does not mean having to be skiing upright. I can do this.” Our girls are smart, powerful, and ambitious.
How did our first time skiers feel? Mary initially wasn’t sure how she felt about leaving her mom in NY to traverse the cold and snowy Colorado mountainside, but she did nothing but laugh since her arrival to Crested Butte. The ASC instructors read her immediately and tapped into her love for singing Disney songs to make the learning process of skiing entertaining. Who knew work could be so fun? Mary’s smile was infectious and she genuinely cheered everyone up, especially after the early morning wake-up calls. I am confident that Mary will be back for more adventure next year.
The strength and determination of our young men cannot be ignored. Daniel’s gentle heart and silly jokes kept the team together all week long. Upon reflecting on his goals for the trip, Daniel shared his desire to increase his overall independence and readiness, and also wanted to help others because he enjoys that more than gaining things for himself. Daniel continued his skiing journey and continued to make progress requiring less equipment than 2 years ago. He worked on his balance and endurance, and when he got tired, he knew how to kick back and enjoy himself.
Keith, our only snowboarder and teenager with an above knee prosthesis, earned the title “Disco Turner” as he blasted tunes from his phone and improved upon his heel and toe edge skills from last year. Keith learned the nuances of his high-tech prosthesis on the mountain, never giving up. Not only did Keith manage to loosen up the group by encouraging us to sing and dance with him, Keith demonstrated an increased level of maturity at the house as well, cleaning up the dirty dishes without prompting and being dressed and ready on time each day.
Isaiah fit in with the whole winter camp experience from the get-go. As mentioned previously, he couldn’t get enough of laughing while he beat us all at foosball, treating us to his special recipe of fried plantains, and mastering the snowy trails with only outriggers, unique ski poles that allow additional support to ski upright. One would never know by Isaiah’s strength and eagerness to assist the group leaders that he is only six months post-surgery and on his first trip away from home.
I would say our smart, driven, and fun-loving group gave the Adapted Sports Center crew and the HSS group leaders a run for their money with the diversity of goals, skills, and strong ambitions that each participant brought to the mountain this year. I love my job more than most, and sincerely love being apart of an experience that allows teenagers to unfold into beautiful, strong young adults. In just one week, these teens mesh not only as a team but also like a family, from buying property on the Monopoly board, to sharing wool socks and bathrooms, to encouraging each other to finish their crazy homework assignments. They share what inspires them, and bond with similar challenges they face while growing up. They understand each other, seek freedom, and are not afraid to take risks. Their growth is truly amazing.
Siobhan Clarke is a physical therapist at the CA Technologies Pediatric Rehabilitation Center at Hospital for Special Surgery. Siobhan works closely with orthopedic surgeons, physical and occupational therapists, and social workers in the Leon Root Motion Analysis Lab and at Hospital for Special Surgery’s Cerebral Palsy Clinic.