Volunteers assist on the slopes
Phil Sarnoff had never heard of adaptive skiing or snowboarding before but he liked the way his roommate, a ski instructor for the National Ability Center (NAC), raved about her experiences every day when she came home. A parks, recreation and tourism graduate student at the University of Utah, Sarnoff liked the idea of learning new recreational activities and decided to become a volunteer.
"I was looking for something to do in my free time and that seemed like a really natural fit," he said. "It gave me a better understanding of the different recreational opportunities that are out there."
About once a week, Sarnoff heads to Park City Mountain Resort, dons his red volunteer vest and meets up with the instructor and the participant. He assists in obtaining the equipment needed and heads out to the mountain for a half day of skiing.
"There’s not much to it," he said. "For the large number of people participants, instructors, volunteers they’re really dialed in. We’re never waiting. The instructors know exactly what to do. I’m constantly impressed with the instructors. They’re exceedingly competent."
Sarnoff said that once they have the equipment, 50 percent of what he does his help the participant on and off the lift. The remainder of his job is to assist the instructor by blocking other skiers from running into them.
"We ski 10 to 15 feet behind the instructor and make sure people aren’t in danger," he said. "The real danger is not for the participant, but the safety of the other skiers. If they ran into a bi-ski (a bucket suspended over two skis), it would be disastrous. They could break limbs."
Sarnoff said this is his second year as a volunteer, and while he enjoys the day of skiing he only receives a day pass for the day he is volunteering he mostly enjoys getting to know the people he’s helping.
"You hope that what you’re doing is going to contribute to the overall experience for those who want to be involved in recreation," he said. "I think the biggest thing is just realizing what’s possible."
He said he recently found an advertisement circulating at the University that suggested people in wheelchairs cannot do physical activities.
"Having already worked with the NAC, I got worked up," he said. "Having seen all these people that are doing things that probably the bulk of the population wouldn’t think they could do."
Wendy Chioji, a Park City resident and NAC volunteer, said the skiing program gives those with disabilities a feeling of freedom and independence.
"What I love is that it’s freedom for people who may not be able to walk," Chioji said. "They go fast and they kind of determine where they want to go."
Last year she had the opportunity to ride in one of the sleds that the participants use and realized how difficult it really was, and how heavy and dangerous they are if skiers run into them by accident.
"It looks like it’s a great ride," she said. "It’s not, it’s really hard. It’s scary."
Chioji said her favorite part of volunteering is working with the children and those who are determined to ski when others think they can’t.
"Last year I worked with a woman, a previous ski patroller, who had a brain injury. She got such joy out of it and it was so familiar to her," she said. "It was the greatest feeling, being able to help give someone that freedom."
Sarnoff agrees that the experience of helping someone else is the main reason he continues to volunteer.
"None of them are in it because they’re really looking forward to skiing," he said. "They’re getting value out of helping people. Mainly, people are doing it from the goodness of their own hearts."
Sarnoff said his most memorable experience happened last weekend as he helped a 15-year-old cancer patient who had one of her legs amputated.
"It was just fantastic," he said. "She was great making those turns and had such a great attitude. I’m sure she got a lot out of those small achievements. But her family and myself, we all got a lot out of it as well."
Chioji said the NAC is always looking for volunteers who can commit a couple hours a week and to be ambassadors for the program.
"Don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation," she said. "Kids always want to know what the sled is and what the (disability) is. It’s been 100 percent positive feedback."
For more information on the NAC or the volunteer program, visit http://www.discovernac.org.
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