Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Wounded Warrior Project

Few things can compare to the feelings of joy and satisfaction experienced when giving back to those who put their lives on the line in the name of freedom. For the last few years I have been involved with the Wounded Warriors Project. The goal of the organization, as highlighted on their website, is to “raise awareness and enlist the public’s aid for the needs of injured soldiers, to help injured service members aid and assist each other, and to provide unique, direct programs and services to meet the needs of injured veterans.” Everyone has the ability to help in achieving these goals.

One weekend every winter, the Wounded Warriors Project comes to the ski slopes of New England. They team up with AbilityPlus, an organization dedicated to teaching physically and mentally handicapped individuals how to enjoy winter sports they thought they were impossible. I have been volunteering with Waterville Valley’s Adaptive Snowsports Program for the past few seasons and the weekend of Wounded Warriors is undoubtedly my favorite. Veterans whose ages and disabilities vary drastically join each other from all over the country to learn to ski or snowboard together. My specialty is with amputees and the task of teaching these severely Wounded Warriors to be independent skiers is exceptionally challenging, but when our mutual goal is accomplished it is a tremendous feeling.

Last year my student was twenty year-old United States Marine, Connor Hundt. Only months prior he had lost both legs and half of his right arm. Connor was still getting used to his prosthetics so we were both aware that we had a long weekend ahead of us. The equipment that was best suited for Connor was a sit-down bi-ski. He would be strapped in a bucket seat that had two skis attached to it, and would use outriggers to steer and control the bi-ski. He was basically buckled into a plastic chair with skis screwed onto it. This set-up is exceptionally difficult to master, but like all sports balance is the first aspect you need to master. Connor was using muscles he had never used before, and therefore fatigue was an issue on Day 1. We stuck to the bunny hill and worked on balance, turning, and most importantly stopping. By the afternoon Connor was both physically and mentally exhausted: we called it quits so he wouldn’t be too tired the following morning.

We refreshed Connor’s skills on the bunny slope on the morning of Day 2, and then proceeded to the chair lift. Able-bodied skiers constantly mess up getting on the chair lift, and with the unique equipment that disabled skiers and riders use the chair can prove to be a very challenging task. Connor’s upper body strength proved pivotal and we were successful on our first attempt. Fortunately, learning to ski is the same for all people. Whether a student is using traditional equipment or cutting-edge sit-down gear individually designed for wounded soldiers like Connor, there is going to be a lot of falling down, bumps and bruises, and sheer frustration. Connor was a tough individual though, and refused to give up. On a cold January day this Marine did not let the elements get to him and he did not even want to go in for lunch. He was fully dedicated to accomplishing his goal of learning to ski. By the end of the second day, Connor was getting on and off the lift by himself, and skiing down the hill completely unassisted by his instructors. All that we did was ski behind him to make sure no one got in his way. The feeling of watching Connor ski independently was one I will never forget. I was skeptical after the first day but Connor did not give up.

The Adaptive Snowsports Programs accepts everyone that wants to volunteer. Just about every mountain in New England has a program, including Loon, Cannon, Attitash, Stowe, Sugarbush, Wachussett, and Sugarloaf. The Wounded Warriors Weekend is only one of many great events that Waterville’s Adaptive Program is involved in. I have had warriors return to ski on their own because they discovered something they love. They are no longer bound by their disabilities when they are on the slopes. I feel very fortunate to be able to show my appreciation to veterans in this small way. To learn more about the Wounded Warriors Project or AbilityPlus, follow the links below.



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