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Trail blazers

Julie Saetre | May 10, 2017

Kids with visual impairments discover the joy of cross-country skiing

At first glance, it looks like just another winter day on the ski trails at the Wilderness Lodge in Erie, Pennsylvania. A group of eight children and young adults, enrolled in the Wilderness Wildcats cross-country skiing program, work with adult instructors to learn the basics of a new-to-them sport.

There’s a lot to take in. How to wear boots and skis. How to work with poles. How to fall and get back up again. And finally, how to actually navigate a trail.

But this particular group of students differs from other Wildcats classes in one key category: These participants are either blind or visually impaired. And thanks to this four-week pilot program—supported by the Erie Kiwanis Club—they are gaining access to a once inaccessible experience.

“Typically, kids with visual impairment don’t have a lot of opportunity,” explains Shannon Wohlford of The Sight Center of Northwest Pennsylvania, which created the program. “When you think about school teams and sporting clubs that are run through communities, a lot of them aren’t inclusive. They don’t have anyone who can adapt or modify to include a child who is blind or severely visually impaired. So we try to offer those opportunities.”

Ned Reade, a Sight Center board member and avid cross-country skier, introduced the idea. Reade, visually impaired himself, enlisted the help of husband-and-wife team Dave and Dorothy Seth. Dorothy, who is blind, medaled in skiing in the Special Olympics.

Before the kids stepped out on the snow, the Sight Center recruited 17 adult volunteers to serve as sighted guides for class participants. All volunteers went through an intense training program to learn the techniques and commands necessary to lead their new skiers. And funds were raised to supply the kids with snow-ready clothing, trail passes and equipment rentals.

When Bill Sapone, president of the Erie Kiwanis Club, was approached for a donation, he took the idea to his board, which approved a contribution. Sapone has been a cross-country skier for decades and wanted the Learn to Ski kids to discover the joys he had experienced.

“It can be 15 degrees out, and after 10 minutes (of skiing), you’re warm,” he says. “You’re seeing nature. It’s quiet. It’s just beautiful.”

After their first class, the new Wildcats agreed.

“They took to it right away,” Wohlford says. “Everyone had a great time. They didn’t want to leave."

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