SOUTHINGTON—On a bright, snowy February afternoon, a dozen children race down the bunny slope at Mount Southington Ski Area.
Madison Hanson, 7, of East Hartford, begs her instructor, Ashley, for another trip down the hill. Ashley agrees, slips on her skis and waddles with Madison towards the lift. Madison, grinning ear to ear, sits on the lift as it takes her back up the hill.
Just a few weeks ago, Madison wasn’t able to ski. Madison’s mother, Michele Hanson, of East Hartford, said her daughter has down syndrome and other health issues that might have made learning to ski difficult to impossible. But the Skiers Unlimited program, run by the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, teaches children with disabilities. The program meets at Mount Southington every Friday throughout January and February from 1 to 3 p.m.
Steven Balcanoff, the coordinator of Skiers Unlimited, said that the program started off more than 35 years ago at Newington Children’s Hospital. Then, it was much smaller with around five children.
“We’ve since grown and evolved,” Balcanoff said. “Now we have around 25.”
Balcanoff said they now have more than 70 volunteers, many of whom are students at Quinnipiac University in Hamden. Quinnipiac became involved years ago when a professor of physical therapy was doing a study at the children’s medical center.
“The staff at the department were all volunteers with us,” Balcanoff said. “They asked him if he skied, he said ‘yes.’ They said: ‘bring your skis on Friday, we’re going skiing.’ ”
The professor was impressed and felt the program would be a great opportunity for his students.
Quinnipiac students are not the only volunteers. Dennis Tyburski, a volunteer and program organizer, has been with the program for over 30 years.
“I started off as an everyday volunteer,” Tyburski said. “As time went on, I helped coordinate things a little more...”
Tyburski said he was trained to work with amputees, the blind and the deaf. This helped him develop techniques to work with multi-syndrome children.
Tyburski previously worked with Balcanoff at CCMC before he retired. Now, he spends his Friday afternoons on the slopes in January and February.
“I’ve taught so many (children) throughout the years that I’ve enjoyed tremendously.” Tyburski said.
Tyburski’s lessons have left a lasting impression.
“I had someone come up to me as I was getting off the lift and ask ‘do you remember me? You taught me how to ski,’” Tyburski said. “He was actually there to teach his girlfriend from (Central Connecticut State University) how to ski. He was 8 or 10 when I taught him. I said, ‘wow, now you’re an accomplished skier.’”
Michele Hanson said Madison is really enjoying skiing. “She’s learning how to ski,” Hanson said. “And also learning how to be more independent.”
Her sister, Abigail Hanson, and father, Bill Hanson, get to ski as well.
“It’s really something fun for the family to do,” Michele said.
“The kids love it, Bill loves it. Madison is really getting a lot out of it.”