Mark Davis was a successful financial professional in his 40’s and had been passionate about skiing for almost as long as he could walk.
Then came 1999, a year that permanently altered the course of Davis’ life. Because of a rare symptom of Multiple Sclerosis, he lost his functional vision. Devastated by the sudden turn of events and the prospect of never skiing again, Davis sought help from the Colorado Ski School for the Blind and was soon back to doing his passion.
The school disbanded shortly thereafter, a move that greatly disturbed Davis. He wanted others to experience the same thrill of the outdoors he’d enjoyed most of his life.
“You can’t do this,” he told them. “You don’t understand what a transformational experience skiing is for people without sight.”
It was then that Davis decided to create his own program. In 2001, he and a group of volunteers formed Foresight Ski Guides, Inc. Since then, the nonprofit has helped hundreds of blind and visually impaired individuals gain access to skiing, snowboarding and other outdoor recreational sports.
Christine Holmberg first became involved with Foresight in February 2019, serving as a program manager before becoming executive director. Her previous background as a corporate events planner and television producer made her a perfect fit to run the group’s operations.
“I got to the point in my life where I wanted a little bit more balance, and wanted to do something that felt good,” Holmberg explained. “Working for a nonprofit is something I had been interested in, and it was just a matter of finding the right (one).”
This year, Foresight plans to offer seven two-day ski camps for blind youth from the Denver area to Colorado Springs. Skiers are provided guides, shadows, lift tickets, equipment rental and access to discounted lodging, all for a requested daily donation that’s less than the cost of a single day lift ticket. Blind and visually impaired adults are also encouraged to participate. While there is no age limit, Holmberg recommends children be a minimum age of 10.
“We have adults who are in their 70’s and 80’s who ski with us. We can work with 10 to 20 adult VIP’s (visually impaired participants) in any given season, plus anywhere from 40 to 60 kids depending on how many come on each trip.”
VIP’s typically stay in a hotel during the two-day camp. Foresight assists with providing rooms through two partner hotels in the Vail Valley and Eagle County. On the first morning, participants are greeted by Foresight staff members who get them outfitted with equipment. Guides then give assessments to determine a child’s skill level. Beginners are paired with professional instructors from the Vail Adaptive Ski School.
After a morning session in the snow, skiers break for lunch, then come back for an afternoon session before being transported to the hotel. Two more sessions follow the next day before participants head home.
Guides are given early-season training that consists of learning the program’s procedures and discussing the role guides and shadows play when paired with participants on the hill. All volunteers start out as shadows, who ski behind the group to keep everyone safe. Guides lead the way, calling commands that direct VIP’s on where to go, when to turn, when to hold and when to stop.
“A guide is really the eyes and ears of the team, so to speak, to get them safely down the hill.”
Last summer, Foresight launched its first summer camp for blind youth. Participants took part in stand-up paddle boarding, hiking, rock climbing, archery and fly fishing over a two-day period.
“It was so exciting to finally do it. It was really cool. They loved it, and everybody wanted more.”
Foresight received a grant from Foreseeable Future Foundation this past fall. The funds went toward lodging, lunch and other expenses for the first ski camp this year.
“They are a perfect match,” Holmberg said of Foreseeable Future. “They support organizations that support activities for people with vision loss. That’s what we do.”
Holmberg is also grateful for the support of Vail Resorts and other area businesses.
“We would not be able to operate without the support we get from Vail Resorts and their philanthropic arm of Epic Promise.”
The coronavirus pandemic posed its share of challenges. But Holmberg was determined not to let it cripple the program. Through Colorado Gives Day and other fundraising efforts, Foresight managed to conduct several adult camps since no school groups were able to participate. The inaugural summer program was also a success.
“We attracted new people last year even though we couldn’t do our youth program. We were able to launch the summer program through just being fiscally responsible and not having as many expenses during the winter.”
Holmberg is proud to carry on the vision that began with Davis, who retired shortly after she arrived. It’s rewarding for her to see the uniqueness of each experience among children and adults with blindness and other disabilities.
“Watching the kids work together and support each other… the confidence they build in realizing they can do something that maybe the general sighted population doesn’t think they can or should do, that’s powerful. That’s something they will take with them their whole lives.”