Adaptive sports program teaches much more than just skiing

Monday , February 08, 2016 - 6:43 AM3 comments

The first time Gaven Smith went skiing, things couldn’t have gone much worse for him. Since then? The sport has quite literally changed his life.

The 18-year-old Morgan High School senior has autism, a serious developmental brain disorder that impairs the ability to communicate and interact. Gaven didn’t develop verbal skills until he was 4 ½ years old, and had severe behavioral problems. Doctors didn’t give his parents much hope for a normal life in the beginning.

“He was doing self-injurious things as a child — biting himself, banging his head against the sheetrock or the cupboards,” his mother, Lea Smith, said. “They suggested early on, when he was maybe 2, that we may have to institutionalize him, he was so out of control.”

A combination of special schools and gradual mainstreaming in public education kept hope alive. Then, when Gaven was in the eighth grade, his school went up skiing for the day at Snowbasin Resort. Gaven wanted to join them, but Mom was apprehensive about letting him go.

“With his autism, he has no fear,” the Mountain Green woman explained. “There’s no common-sense factor that says, ‘I should be afraid of this.’ ”

Students would ride the school bus to the resort, where they would take a ski lesson in the morning and ski throughout the afternoon. They’d then ride the bus back to school at the end of the day. Smith eventually decided to compromise with her son, letting Gaven ride up on the school bus, but picking him up at the resort after the morning lesson.

“I planned to get up there by the time the lesson was over,” Smith said. “I thought he’d be fried by then and ready to come home.”

Although Gaven had some problems that morning, culminating in a ride on the ski patrol snowmobile, when Smith got there, her son wasn’t ready to leave.

“He was having a ball,” she said.

So Smith went back home, determined to let Gaven ride the bus home with the other kids.

At about 4 p.m., Smith got a phone call from Gaven.

“He’s always had a cell phone, so we could locate him,” Smith said. “Sometimes, he would hide somewhere at the school, and they’d call me and say they couldn’t find him, and I’d check his location and tell them where he was,”

It seems Gaven was hiding again. Sort of.

“I need you to have the ski patrol come and get me,” he told her. “I’m in the blue.”

To this day, Smith still doesn’t know what Gaven meant by “in the blue.” But what was apparent was that he had gotten into some trouble on the last run of the day.

“There was this cute girl in the class that he liked, and he followed her and her friends up to the top of the mountain,” Smith said.

“I didn’t know how to ski at all,” Gaven added. “I followed this girl I had a crush on, and I got lost.”

Smith said the girl and her friends didn’t even know Gaven was following them; with his autism he wouldn’t have dared speak to them. They skied down, and he tried to follow. But it was too steep for a first-time skier. Gaven kept falling, and he got lost.

Wisely, Gaven took off his skis, and began to walk down the mountain. Not so wisely, he thought a straight line to the bottom would be faster than following the groomed snow of the ski run.

“He got off the trail into the trees,” Smith said. “And he sunk up to his little armpits in the snow.”

With darkness approaching, this story might have ended in tragedy had Gaven not had that cell phone. By the time ski patrolers found him, he was cold, frustrated and pretty beat up. Smith figured it was not only her son’s first time skiing, but his last.

Teaching life skills

And then the Ogden Valley Adaptive Sports program came along. The nonprofit corporation helps those with disabilities that would otherwise prevent them from enjoying a day on the mountain. Using special ski equipment and specially trained ski instructors, each winter the organization offers about 500 ski lessons to about 85 clients.

“We don’t teach skiing,” insisted Karen Bradley, coordinator of the program. “We teach life skills.”

The program started when Bradley and her husband, Jim — who hailed from Michigan — retired and decided to spend winters as “ski bums” in Utah. They took jobs as ski instructors at Snowbasin, and soon learned there weren’t any adaptive programs or equipment for the disabled in the area. So the Bradleys, along with a few others, started teaching adaptive lessons at Snowbasin. That was the winter of 2008-09, and by March 2010 the Snowbasin Adaptive Sports Education Foundation had attained nonprofit status.

This year, the group changed its name to Ogden Valley Adaptive Sports, and has expanded its reach to teach at all three Ogden Valley resorts — Snowbasin, Powder Mountain, and Nordic Valley. This year’s clients have included disabled skiers from ages 3 to 94, according to Karen Bradley.

The cost is $85 for a two-hour lesson, which includes the instructor, lift pass and any special equipment needed for the disabled skier. Scholarships are available for those who can’t afford the “Adapt” program, as it’s called for short. And there’s an Adapt Race Day planned for Feb. 26 at Snowbasin.

Some of Adapt’s clients, like Gaven, have autism. Others have varying degrees of paralysis, or blindness, or other disabilities.

“The only thing we don’t do is teach if they’re on oxygen tanks,” Bradley said.

Colton Berrett is not on oxygen, but he is on a boxy portable ventilator, which attaches to a tracheostomy tube in his neck. Almost two years ago, the 15-year-old Farr West boy had an adverse reaction to a Gardasil vaccine, which left him paralyzed from the neck down, according to his mother, Kathleen Berrett. He’s gotten some mobility back, but while he can now walk, he still can’t use his neck, right arm or upper left arm. His condition isn’t expected to improve.

Prior to his illness, Colton loved to ski, whenever and wherever.

“Here at Snowbasin, at Powder (Mountain) — wherever Mom would buy him a ticket,” Kathleen Berrett explained with a laugh.

Colton is now in the Adapt program.

“It was great to have that experience of going down the hill,” Colton said. “I even did a jump.”

On cue, his mother produces the photographic evidence on her smartphone. The image shows Colton in midair, sitting on a bi-ski, with his ski instructor controlling it from behind. Colton said he is able to lean side-to-side to help control the direction of the bi-ski.

“I can’t control 100 percent of it, but it’s great,” he said with a grin. “It’s really fun.”

Feeling normal

Two of Allen and Lori Walton’s six children are in the Adapt program. Fourteen-year-old Katie has spina bifida (a birth defect involving the spinal cord) and 13-year-old Zach is autistic. It’s the fifth year in the program for the Ogden family.

Katie, who rides in a bi-ski, loves the freedom of flying down the mountain — the faster and higher, the better, Lori Walton said. But more than teaching her children how to ski, Walton said the program builds their self-esteem and confidence.

“Katie’s friends are in competition dance, or cheerleading, or competition soccer,” Walton said. “They’re involved in all of these sports, and Katie can’t participate in any of that. So skiing is her time to shine.”

As for Zach, Walton describes her autistic child as “kind of awkward, with little quirks.” And he has an issue with stuttering.

“But when he puts skis on, he doesn’t stutter,” Walton said. “In fact, he doesn’t stutter during the entire ski season.”

She figures it’s because he has someone to listen to him, and help build him up, during his ski lessons.

“If he’s had a bad day, or he was bullied at school, we can come here,” Walton said. “If he’s agitated, they take him up and talk a bit on the mountain. And then they go ski.”

Walton said the Adapt program has given her entire family something to do together. Well, except for Mom. She’s the self-described “porch-sitter,” who stays at the bottom of the hill handing out the trail mix and taking photographs.

“I’m not allowed to ski,” she said, explaining that she’s accident-prone. “I don’t want to be flown off the mountain, I want to drive off.”

Seven-year-old Dane Humphrey is deaf and autistic. The Adapt program allows him to feel normal, according to his grandfather, Neal Humphrey, of Layton.

“When he’s skiing, he’s absolutely like everyone else,” Humphrey said.

Outdoor activities seem to help Dane, Humphrey said, and, as with many children with autism, he likes the feeling of being weighted down. Some speculate the heavy gear involved with skiing may be one of the things that appeals to autistic children.

“I can hand him a weighted dumbbell, or even a tool, and it calms him,” Humphrey said. “He likes the feel of heavy objects.”

The Ogden Valley Adaptive Sports program isn’t just for children. Todd Henrie is a 49-year-old Pleasant View man who has been a paraplegic since a car accident in 1979. He loved to ski before his accident, and now he’s back on the mountain, thanks to his bi-ski and the Adapt program.

“The biggest thing that’s bothered me about my accident is not being able to ski,” Henrie said.

Miracle worker

Despite Gaven Smith’s initial unpleasant experience with skiing in the eighth grade, the following year his mother stumbled upon the Adapt program. Smith enrolled her autistic child.

“He has this adorable ski instructor, a 70-year-old grandma, who has really helped him,” Smith said.

Carolyn Felder, of South Ogden, turns 70 in April. She’s taught skiing for years, and is amazed by the progress Gaven has made — both in skiing and in life.

“The first time he came in, he wouldn’t look at me,” Felder said. “He wouldn’t look at anyone.”

Gaven admitted he struggles to communicate with others, .

“I have many weaknesses, and one of them is not speaking to people,” he said. “As a kid, I never liked clothing or people in general.”

That first year, after the third lesson, Felder said she took Gaven’s face in her hands. She said, “Gaven, look at me. Until you can look at me and say, ‘Carolyn, let’s go skiing,’ we’ll just sit here in this room.”

It worked.

Gaven’s mother said Felder has been nothing short of a miracle worker. Three years ago, her son didn’t have good verbal or people skills.

“He’s very intelligent — he has a high I.Q. — but his social skills are very low,” Smith said.

And now?

“He’s talking to people on the gondola, talking to other instructors,” Smith said. “And it’s appropriate conversation.”

Felder remembers well the first time Gaven engaged with strangers.

“The second year, we were sitting on the gondola, facing some other visitors, and Gaven looked at them and said, ‘Well, how are you folks doing today?’ ” Felder recalled. “My teeth fell on the floor — and they’re not dentures.”

Today, the 6-foot-1, 240-pound Gaven has a part-time job at Snowbasin, setting up flags and safety nets at the resort. He occasionally helps Felder with a group ski class. And he’ll graduate from Morgan High School this spring. Not bad for an autistic kid who, at one point, seemed destined to be institutionalized.

“We really went up there to help him learn to ski, but it’s helped him so much more, in so many other ways,” Smith said. “I am a big fan of adaptive sports.”

Neal Humphrey said skiing has been incredible therapy for grandson Dane.

“We’ll bring him home from a ski session, and he’ll be calm and cooperative for days,” he said.

Humphrey is also amazed that his autistic grandson will wait patiently in the lift line.

“And on the chair lift — and remember, he’s autistic — he’ll wave at people,” Humphrey said.

“And then, he just skis ...”

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SEMarkSaal.

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