Skiing and snowboarding for kids with special needs: Check out these destinations in our region
Adaptive skiing photo by Kurt Schachner, courtesy of Snowshoe Mountain.
One of the best things about growing up in Pittsburgh is the plentiful access to winter sports recreation areas. Allegheny County itself boasts of Boyce Park, a public ski hill appropriate for beginners that costs only about $40 for rental equipment and a lift ticket. Within several hours, you’ll find a multitude of ski resorts along the Appalachian mountains through West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York.
But what if your child has a disability or challenges that make learning to ski or snowboard more difficult?
You might assume there are few options, because most ski schools are designed for typically developing kids. But here’s the good news: Whether your child has a physical disability or cognitive/mental health needs, a large network of people across the world have developed beautifully adaptive methods for teaching winter snowsports. And fortunately, we have several adaptive snowsport programs within driving distance of Pittsburgh specifically tailored to kids (and their adults).
WHERE TO GO FOR SKIING WITH SPECIAL NEEDS
The most robust program for skiing with special needs that is accessible by car from Pittsburgh is the Adaptive Winter Sports Program at Snowshoe Mountain in West Virginia– about a 3.5 hour drive. In partnership with Challenged Athletes of West Virginia, the program has a dedicated building, a large supply of adaptive ski equipment, and lessons most days of the week.
Carol Woody, who runs the program, estimates they have already completed 160 lessons for the 2021-2022 season.
“We serve folks from age four to ninety-four of all abilities. Some people need a little bit of extra help, and some people need help with everything,” she says. “At minimum, our lessons are one instructor to one student, but many lessons have two, three, or four adults helping one student. We have the opportunity to make it really personal.”
The program is affordable, at around $70 per lesson, and they have options to help those who cannot afford it, she says: “We really try to not ever turn anyone away. We try to find someone to sponsor those who can’t afford the fee.”
In the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania, there are several resorts that are able to help kids of all abilities access winter snowsports through a partnership with Three Rivers Adaptive Sports.
At Seven Springs, contact their Snowsports school and they will assist your family in scheduling an adaptive ski lesson. Three Rivers Adaptive Sports also has regular weekly lessons on Saturdays at Hidden Valley Resort. Open spots are subject to volunteer availability, so please request a spot at least two weeks in advance here. The fee for ski lessons is $75 per day, and discounts are given to family members who accompany their child. Like Snowshoe Mountain, they also have some scholarship funds available for families with financial barriers.
CHEERING FOR LOCAL ATHLETES
Seven Springs also hosts the Winter Special Olympics for the entire state of Pennsylvania. The Special Olympics of Pennsylvania (SOPA) works specifically with children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Winter Games have been held at Seven Springs since 2017. Prior to that, it was spread out across several different locations in the Laurel Highlands.
The 2022 games have been canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 concerns. But Ann Nemanic, the executive director of Go Laurel Highlands, looks forward to hosting the games in 2023. “While disappointed, we anxiously await the return of the Special Olympics to the Laurel Highlands,” she says. “What an honor it is for our region, and Seven Springs Mountain Resort, to host these exceptional athletes and their families.”
Families who are interested in involving their children in the Special Olympics of Pennsylvania can contact the Western Field Director, James Binz.
Cayla Galbreath, a freshman at Northgate High School with Down Syndrome, participated in the Winter Special Olympics with SOPA in the 2019-2020 season, which was the last Games to be held in person before the pandemic.
Her mother Jan praises the program: The volunteer coach was patient and encouraging, she says, and Cayla had three ski days with the team (two at Boyce Park and one at Seven Springs) before the Games.
“She made new friends which she loves – she is a social butterfly! She also gained a lot of confidence in conquering this new activity in a short time. She won two gold medals and a silver in a division of all male athletes. She was very proud she beat the boys!”
Cayla continues to play basketball with SOPA while looking forward to the 2023 Winter Special Olympics to ski once again.
If your family is seeking options for skiing with special needs and want a more intensive introduction to winter sports, travel across the state to the Poconos – a 4.5 hour drive from Pittsburgh. The Pennsylvania Center for Adapted Sports hosts a weeklong adaptive ski camp at Camelback Resort. Families stay with their children in a local hotel, and also have a chance to check out Aquatopia, the indoor water park at Camelback.
The coach for the February 2022 camp is a former camper himself and a two-time paralympic athlete. Tyler Carter was born in eastern Pennsylvania, and had his leg amputated as an infant. He began skiing at this very camp at only 8 years old. In addition to this weeklong camp, Camelback Resort can arrange adaptive snowsport lessons during the weekends.
Whether your child eventually becomes a paralympian or just wants to enjoy some nearby slopes in a welcoming and inclusive environment, Pittsburghers are fortunate to have so many amazing adaptive snowsport options available.