As the young boy glided to a stop at the bottom of the hill, the small group of people waiting for him began to applaud. He high-fived his instructor and gave his mother a big hug, smiling brightly enough to melt the snow underneath him.
Here, there is no mention made of his disabilities or medical condition. There is no special treatment. He is treated the way he wants to be treated; like a regular kid.
“These kids are getting that chance to be normal,” senior physical therapy major Ericka Fryburg said. “For the few hours they’re here, they get to do the things normal kids do.”
Every Friday afternoon in January and February, Fryburg and about a dozen other Quinnipiac students travel to Mount Southington in Plantsville, Conn. to take part in a program called Skiers Unlimited, a non-profit organization that helps local children with disabilities learn how to ski.
Talking to anyone involved with the program, the experience is one that is worth sacrificing the time for.
“This is as much therapy for us as it is for them,” Frybaurg said. “Seeing the kids smiling, it’s the best feeling. That’s what I do it for.”
Skiers Unlimited was founded over 30 years ago by the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, which still sponsors the program today.
Coordinator Steve Balcanoff has been there since the very beginning and is still highly involved, strapping on the skis with everyone else.
“You just love coming out here and seeing the happiness this brings to the kids,” Balcanoff said. “That’s what keeps me coming back.”
Quinnipiac has been involved with the program for almost 20 years and has provided the help necessary to keep the program going.
“Without the students from QU, this program probably would’ve died out or just wouldn’t be very good,” Balcanoff said.
Quinnipiac’s involvement with Skiers Unlimited began when Richard Albro, a professor of Health Sciences at Quinnipiac, took a semester off early in his teaching career.
During that time, Albro worked at a gait lab that was involved with the program. Though he had never skied before, he didn’t back down from the challenge when asked if he wanted to help out.
“He came out for the day and loved it,” Balcanoff said. “So he decided to find a way to get Quinnipiac students involved.”
Ever since then, Quinnipiac students have made the 30-minute commute to Southington to help build the foundation for the program.
“I have taught skiing before, but this is by far the most rewarding,” Junior physical therapy major Melania Lindberg said. “You can see the results not only in their skiing but in their attitudes.”
Through donations from Mount Southington and local ski shops, the program is free for the children and for the volunteers.
Equipment has also been donated, including the equipment that helps teach the children to ski.
The type of help the children need depends on how far along they are in the program. The kids who have just started often have their skis clamped together and have a rope attached to it, which the instructor uses to steer the child from behind to help teach the child how to turn.
Some of the kids are given two instructors: one that holds them around the midsection from behind and one that encourages the child a few feet in front of them.
“Sometimes, the children have a tough time paying attention, and that person is just there to help them focus on getting down the mountain,” Fryburg said.
Others who have been in the program for several years are able to ski with almost no assistance. And while that is a goal for many of the skiers, the volunteers will tell you that it is not the most important thing.
“As long as they’re having fun – that’s all we want,” Lindberg said.
And having fun isn’t hard for these kids, who are looking forward to every Friday so they can put on their gear and hit the slopes.
But in a time when most parents pressure their kids to be the best at the sports they play, perhaps it’s most refreshing to see how the parents react to their children’s success.
Most of the time, their smiles are just as big as the one on their child’s face.
So as the young boy scurried to the lift for another run, his mother walked back over to the other parents, smiling and shaking her head.
As she approached the group, she began to laugh.
“Well, he told me what he wants for Christmas next year,” she said through her laughter, “a brand-new pair of skis.”