University of Vermont

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UVM Adaptive Sports Club Grows in Size and Impact

Harrison Keyes
UVM senior Harrison Keyes won a $10,000 grant to purchase adaptive sports equipment to benefit skiers with disabilities. (Photo: Jon Reidel)

It’s an important moment when the parents of a child with a disability find someone who connects with their son or daughter, helping make physical and emotional progress. The father of an eight-year-old boy whose son has taken a liking to senior Mitch Snowe, a UVM Adaptive Sports volunteer, is grateful for the connection and is convinced it benefits both his son and his new mentor.

“My son really looks forward to working with Mitch,” says Ted, who prefers to keep his son’s name confidential. “It’s a good opportunity for younger children like my son, who has ADHD, to spend time with a highly functioning college student for mentoring and instructional purposes. He needs a good male role model to help with his development, and he really connected with Mitch. I think it’s a win-win for both of them.”

Snowe agrees.

“He’s almost always excited to go skiing, and although he is sometimes a bit timid to try new trails, he seems to really enjoy them once he gets going,” says Snowe. “I have learned a lot this season from him as well as other skiers with disabilities, who despite their added challenges, love to be out there on the mountain tearing it up just like the rest of us. I've had a lot of fun this year volunteering and have met some truly amazing people in the process.”

Relationships like these have become more common in recent years thanks to a resurgent UVM Adaptive Sports club – a student-run volunteer organization that partners with Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports to provide outdoor and athletic opportunities for clients with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities. UVM students ski with individuals at Killington Resort and Pico Mountain in Killington, Sugarbush Resort, and Bolton Valley, and also work with children and adults with disabilities at kayaking, canoeing, sailing, cycling, hiking, rock climbing, tennis, horseback riding and other activities.

Under the leadership of program coordinator Harrison Keyes, UVM Adaptive Sports, which operates along with 15 other volunteer clubs under the umbrella of Volunteers in Action, has experienced a recent surge in membership and fundraising. Keyes spearheaded a grant application to the Newman’s Foundation, resulting in a $10,000 award used to purchase three Mountain Man bi-skis and other equipment. Keyes, who has worked with similar organizations since middle school, was awarded the Jim Hutchinson Volunteer of the Year Award from Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports in 2012 for showing exemplary volunteer efforts.

“The UVM club is super motivated and we love the commitment and support they lend to the program,” says Erin Fernandez, executive director of Vermont Adaptive, who estimates that college students account for about 25 percent of her organization's 400 volunteers. “Harrison has tirelessly offered his time and talent to the organization throughout the year and has not only moved the program further along, but has fostered leadership and training among younger members he recruited to carry on the tradition after he graduates.”

From class to slopes

The approximately 35 members of UVM Adaptive Sports, which has been around in various incarnations since the 1970s when it focused on Special Olympics, initially joined for a variety of reasons. Some volunteers are admittedly enticed by the free ski passes, but end up finding the experience of working with children and adults with disabilities truly meaningful. “The ski passes are a great way to get people interested, but it turns into something much more for those who keep coming back,” says Keyes.

Sophomore Sam Fairchild, who volunteered at a similar program in high school, didn’t need much coaxing by Keyes to join the club when he arrived on campus two years ago. “I’d worked with a sit-down skier who went through a tough transition when he was about 10 years old with other kids treating him differently because he had a disability,” says Fairchild. “Skiing was a real release for him, and he ended up being a better skier than most of the other kids. It was really rewarding being able to see him progress and work through that tough time.”    

Some students like junior Jesse Groom, an exercise and movement science major, have managed to tie the experience of working with individuals with disabilities to their coursework. Students are required to take two days of training at a ski resort and another day of orientation before they start working with athletes with a broad range of disabilities including spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, visual impairments, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, autism, ADHD and other impairments.

“Working with students with disabilities who ski and play sled hockey has allowed me to make some connections with what I’ve learned in class,” says Groom, adding that Susan Kasser, exercise and movement science program director and associate professor of rehabilitation and movement science, encourages student to join UVM Adaptive Sports to make these connections. “It gives meaning to what we learn in class.”