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Making a little girl smile

How one IBMer is assisting the disabled build self-confidence through skiingCADS Calgary Ski School

Every Friday night for the past four winters, IBMer Jeff Helton, has driven to Canada Olympic Park in Calgary, Alberta, where he straps on his skis and dons his “tiger” ski helmet. He then meets up with his skiing partner for the evening – a nine year old girl, Olivia, who was born with bilateral retinoblastoma and is blind.

For the next two hours Jeff and Olivia ski together – where week after week he has taught her the skills and confidence needed to become a solid intermediate skier – all under the auspices of The Canadian Association for Disabled Skiing (CADS).

Skiing is for everyone

CADS is a volunteer organization with provincial chapters across the country. For thirty years they have assisted disabled Canadians lead richer and fuller lives through active participation in recreational skiing and snowboarding. Their over 1900 abled-bodied volunteers instruct and support approximately 1100 disabled members – all so they can experience the great outdoors in wintertime and one of Canada’s favourite sports.

Jeff explains that there is a wide variety of people who participate in the CADS program: some are trying to get back into skiing after having had an accident that’s left them paralyzed or without a leg; some have experienced a brain injury that’s compromised their ability to function as they used to; and others – like Olivia – are visually impaired.

Forming a trusted bond

When Jeff began to work with Olivia she was a complete novice with the added complication of being legally blind. This meant Jeff needed to find some special techniques to help her navigate downhill. He was also determined to make the experience as much fun as possible and gear his instruction at a level she would comprehend. Early on he discovered she had two pets – a cat and a dog. So he developed a series of verbal signals based on the sounds her pets make, which would indicate when she should move her weight from one ski to the other in order to turn or come to a complete stop.Mono skier CADS Calgary

In the beginning, Jeff would ski backwards in front of Olivia with a partner uphill – looking for other skiers who might be in the vicinity and skiing out of control. But after four years of working together, Olivia and Jeff have progressed to the point where he guides her from behind with verbal cues. They are connected via headsets and keep up a constant dialogue as they schuss downhill together. In fact, Jeff says Olivia – being a typical nine year old girl – loves to talk and has a great sense of humor. Over the years they have developed a very special bond.

Helping CADS with an IBM Community Grant

In addition to working with Olivia, Jeff participates one night each week in a developmental session where he learns more about adaptive skiing techniques using sit skis and outriggers. This comes in handy on the occasional time he gets paired up with another student dealing with a different disability. Jeff was able to convert his volunteer hours into a $2,000 Community Grant from IBM that will provide well needed cash that CADS will use to buy more outriggers – as each year they need to replace about five pairs.

When asked what his volunteer work with CADS means to him Jeff said, “I’ve been skiing all of my life and find great satisfaction in sharing my winter passion with others for whom strapping on a pair of skis is not quite so simple and straightforward.” Now a Level II CADS certified instructor, Jeff takes great satisfaction in the small steps that lead to success for a disabled skier. “You cannot take them into a situation that will make them fearful before they are ready. Each student needs to find his/her comfort level before you take them on to the next.”

And for one little girl Jeff’s volunteerism has made a world of difference as she races to the bottom of the mountain with the rest of her able bodied family – all skiers themselves.

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