Challenge Alaska has been teaching adaptive skiing and snowboarding to disabled adults and children for 33 years. Located at the base of Alyeska Mountain in Girdwood, Alaska, the building has a cozy familial feel that belies its nature as a cutting edge facility for an adaptive recreation program. Challenge Alaska Ski and Snowboard School instructor Jeremy Anderson says the organization is prepared to work with would-be skiers and snowboarders of every ability and comfort level:
"Anybody that walks through these doors, gets wheelchaired through these doors, or gets carried through these doors, or happens to stumble in this building, we can get them sliding in the snow, with any piece of equipment that we have. And sometime it's no equipment." First-timers start out with an assessment and are started out on any of a number of different kinds of equipment "depending on their attitude, their confidence, and what their goals are."
The program accommodates a range of disabilities: physical, developmental, cognitive, as well as warriors back from service and some youth at risk. They also have a visiting athlete program. This year Jeff Heinz of Michigan made his first trip to Alaska to spend the week at Challenge. Heinz was paralyzed in a motocross accident just a couple of years ago but is now back to ripping up the mountain with friends back home. He first heard about Challenge at a race in Michigan, and within a day of skiing Alyeska, he was tackling the North Face in his sitski with speed and grace.
This year, approximately 250 registered Challenge volunteers will put in 14,000 hours with the program. Some instructors only come to work the hill twice a year, other every weekend, and some every day.
"The fact is, everybody deserves a chance to slide on the snow," Anderson says. "And if you believe that -- and all of our Challenge family believes that -- you just go out and try to get people feeling what we feel when we're out there. Basically we're using skiing as a vehicle to promote social skills, confidence building, and physical fitness. And all that comes full circle back around, and you'll see people doing better in school, finding new hobbies, being motivated when they're not on the hill."
Members feel like one big extended family. One March weekend found Anna Boltz, 7, and her gal pals having a slumber party at the facility, with karaoke, a game of Headbanz, cookies, and waffles for breakfast. The party was co-hosted by able-bodied Jazzy Golly, 11; her dad, Tracy Golly, has been a dedicated volunteer ski instructor with Challenge Alaska for 17 years, and now Jazzy is training to become an instructor herself. Tracy Golly has spent the last two years teaching Logan, 7, who is non-verbal autistic, how to ski. When Logan first arrived at Challenge he refused to even put ski boots on. But after a season of patience and persistence Golly was able to get him up the hill, and even to utter a rare expression for Logan: "happy." A former volunteer, Ira Edwards, was working Ranger for Alaska State Parks, when a leaning tree fell on him and shattered his spine. Now Edwards is a Challenge client, currently prepping for next month's extreme skiing and snowmachine competition, Arctic Man.
And then there's Randy Finch, who brings upbeat energy to the group. Finch says when he tells people about his winters skiing Alyeska they think it's about the physical act, but for him, "it's about being with friends, helping people on the mountain and keeping the energy level going, and keeping people pumped up about (skiing), and going out on the mountain and skiing with them."
"And they let me be me," Finch said. "There's no restrictions, there's no barriers here. They take me for who I am, and I'm a real crazy cat sometimes. But it's means the world to me. It's something I hope to be part of for a very long time."