By Bailey Wright
SOUTHINGTON — The goal of Connecticut Children’s Medical Center’s Skiers Unlimited Program is to teach disabled children how to ski safely and have fun.
Often, the children build self-confidence, independence, social skills and endurance along the way.
For more than 30 years, medical center employees and volunteers from Quinnipiac University have taught the children every Friday for several weeks during winter months. Friday marked the last session of the season, and five skiers “graduated” from the program at Mount Southington.
Noelle Johnson, a senior at Quinnipiac University studying occupational therapy, was among the volunteers
“I love (occupational therapy) and I really love skiing, so it was sort of putting like the two things I really love together,” Johnson said. “It's nice to be able to impart a passion of mine on a population that I really enjoy working with.”
Two of Katy Blanchette’s children, Kellen, 6, and Patrick, 7, have been in the program for two years. The Branford resident said both boys love to ski.
“Patrick just loves feeling like an able-bodied kiddo and you know, his dad loves to ski, so to be able to do something that his dad loves to do is fun for him,” Blanchette said. “He doesn't get to do a whole lot of typical activities, so the fact that he's able to do it, he loves that.”
Patrick had three strokes before birth and has cerebral palsy. He gets on the ski lift with some helpful volunteers and makes it down the beginner slope using a walker.
Meanwhile, his brother Kellen, who was born premature with autism and ADHD, uses the “magic carpet” conveyor belt to practice the skills he loves to talk to his friends about.
Their mom yells “Way to go buddy,” and “You go Kellen!” as she videotapes the two.
“The kids faces. I mean, they love it,” longtime volunteer Craig Goldstein said. “They can do it at their own pace, they shine. Both the kids and their families just have huge smiles and senses of accomplishments, which is awesome.”
Goldstein opened Cheshire Fitness Zone in 2001 to offer occupational, speech, and physical therapy to kids of all ages and abilities. He said skiing augments what the kids learn in therapy.
“It's an activity that kids can do and it's individualized, so they can take all the skills they learned and bring them out here to the snow,” Goldstein said.“(It) builds strength, endurance, self-confidence, socialization— they're ability to interact with others, they come out here and have more confidence.”