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Tahoe Adaptive Ski School brings the slopes to everyone

Paul Raymore, Sierra Sun

All major ski resorts in this area say they offer terrain for skiers and snowboarders of all abilities, but Alpine Meadows just might be a little more justified in making that claim than most.

Visitors who venture down to the base of Alpine’s Subway chair lift will come across the Tahoe Adaptive Ski School (TASS), a nonprofit organization founded in 1967 with the philosophy that everyone should be able to get out and have fun in the mountains, even people with disabilities that make learning to ski or snowboard more challenging.

With a staff of almost 180 (90 percent of whom volunteer their time), a fully stocked equipment room containing all of the specialized gear necessary to get disabled skiers on the hill, and a growing amount of community support, TASS is able to help approximately 600 students learn to ski or snowboard each winter.

Teaching disabled kids and adults to get down the slopes at Alpine takes specially trained instructors according to TASS Director Haakon Lang-Ree, as well as an open mind as to what kind of equipment will work best for the students.

“We’re always inventing new stuff to match the students’ needs,” Lang-Ree said.

One look in the TASS equipment room testifies to the fact that he is not kidding. Mono- and bi-skis of different varieties hang from the walls along with outrigger poles, special braces, and more traditional ski and snowboard gear.

TASS allows its students to borrow any gear they need to get them out on the hill, a service that brings the cost of a day on the slopes into an affordable price range for someone with specialized needs considering that the purchase price of a mono- or bi-ski can easily run from $2,000 – $3,000.

On Friday, Feb. 6, when I visited TASS, five students in the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District’s Special Education Transition Program were enjoying a day of mountain sports.

Students Chanel Deas and Dawn Knez were preparing for a day of snowshoeing with special education teacher Lisa Furr and instructional assistant Julie Allen while students Erin Freeman, Norma Bravo and Rene Garcia were gearing up for ski and snowboard lessons with TASS instructors.

Designed to provide community based Instruction for special education students between the ages of 18 and 22, the Tahoe Truckee Transition Program holds classes at Sierra College and teaches its students vocational skills, how to use public transportation in the area, academic and social skills, and leisure recreation skills with the goal of helping them become productive citizens in our community.

TASS helps by providing scholarships that allow all kids with developmental disabilities in the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District to ski or snowboard with TASS instructors four times each winter.

“What’s really neat here is that they (TASS) provide one-to-one instruction, and the quality of the lesson is excellent,” Furr said. “They make it really age appropriate, they make it fun, and they make them want to come back.”

According to Furr, being able to come out to Alpine Meadows and learn to ski or snowboard helps her students fit in with all of the other kids in this area who participate in winter sports.

Both Furr and Lang-Ree pointed to Erin Freeman as a prime example of the results that can be achieved by students in TASS’s programs.

Freeman, who suffers from a physical disability which makes balancing difficult for her, began taking ski lessons with TASS eight years ago. When she first started skiing, Freeman used a specially designed walker with short skis attached to the bottom. Eight years later, Freeman is now skiing on regular skis using hand-held outriggers for poles – which provide her with the additional support she needs – and feels comfortable skiing all of the runs served by the Subway chair lift.

While Freeman may have progressed the most out of the three Transition Program students taking lessons at TASS on Friday, it was Norma Bravo’s lesson that best illustrated TASS’s mission in action.

Bravo’s regular instructor, Matt Oberholtz, is himself a paraplegic who skis with a mono-ski. Oberholtz and Bravo have established a great relationship on the slopes, and Bravo’s confidence on skis has blossomed during her lessons at TASS. On Friday, Oberholtz was working with Bravo, trying to get her to shift her weight forward into a more balanced stance while making turns on the intermediate runs off Alpine’s Hot Wheels and Yellow chair lifts.

Seeing students like Freeman, Bravo and Garcia having a great time on the slopes is what the TASS scholarship program is all about, according to Lang-Ree, and he is happy that the organization is able to provide that service to the community.

According to Lang-Ree, only one-fourth of TASS’s annual revenue is generated by its students, with the remainder being made up by the school’s fund-raising efforts such as the upcoming Benefit Bash in Kings Beach on March 27.

In addition to the financial assistance from the community, TASS relies heavily on its volunteers and on the support from Alpine Meadows which provides complimentary lift tickets and coupons to the school for use by TASS students and volunteers.

For more information about the Tahoe Adaptive Ski School and its programs, contact (530) 581-4161 or see the Disabled Sports USA Far West Chapter’s Web site at http://www.dsusafw.org/winter.html.


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