Annual Ski Trip Encourages Independence and Confidence for Tennessee Blind Students

For over 20 years, students from the Tennessee School for the Blind have traveled to Colorado for a week of skiing and fun.

Since 1995, Challenge Aspen has been providing year-round adaptive sports and recreation programs for people with all types of physical and cognitive disabilities.

Headquartered in Snowmass, Colorado, less than 15 miles from Aspen, the organization offers over 24 outdoor recreational programs including skiing, white water rafting, horseback riding and swimming.

Challenge Aspen was established by Amanda Boxtel, who became paralyzed following a skiing accident on Snowmass Mountain. She was joined by Houston Cowan, a volunteer who was first introduced to adaptive programs through Blind Outdoor Leisure Development (BOLD). The two began offering adaptive ski camps to encourage individuals with disabilities to learn new skills and gain confidence. Other fall and summer sports were eventually added for a year-round experience.

For over 20 years, senior students from the Tennessee School for the Blind have traveled to Snowmass for a week-long ski adventure. It’s become an annual tradition, complete with several days of skiing and sightseeing.

This year, the trip took place the second week after Thanksgiving. A total of 10 students along with four adults traveled to Snowmass, including orientation and mobility instructor Julia Hedrick.

“It’s their senior trip,” explained Hedrick, who has taught at TSB for 20 years.

Hedrick’s son was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP) at a young age. Already a teacher, she realized there was a shortage of teachers for the visually impaired.

“He (had) atypical Rp and lost his vision early. I became aware of the shortage of teachers for the visually impaired and thought, ‘hey, I can do that’.”

At Challenge Aspen, skiers are matched with a sighted volunteer, or buddy. Each pair is grouped with three other skiers, their volunteers and an instructor who rotates through each group. Instructors are certified in cognitive and visual impairments. Volunteers are put through extensive training to work with visually impaired students. They must also pass a background check before being allowed to participate.

As the coordinator for the annual TSB trip, Hedrick handles all the necessary paperwork, determines which students and adults will attend, and acts as a chaperone the week of the event.

“I give out medicines as needed, make sure the kids know the schedule, supervise and get them where they need to be.”

Before the trip, Hedrick sends a summary of each student to Challenge Aspen’s staff with information about their athletic experience, if any, and personality traits. This saves valuable time in assessing skill level and helps in pairing them with a buddy.

On the first day after arriving in Snowmass, students receive equipment, meet their buddy and take the gondola to the beginner ski area. The first three days are spent skiing in the morning for two to three hours before a break for lunch and another couple of hours of skiing in the afternoon.

“They can take breaks, but basically they’re out there four to five hours for three days in a row skiing.”

Some students naturally progress faster than others. Many preferred to stay in the beginner area, but a few stepped out of their comfort zone by trying more difficult runs. One girl whooped with excitement after mastering the hill of a particularly difficult area.

For Hedrick, it was especially gratifying to see the confidence level of her students soar after accomplishing a task they didn’t initially believe possible. Many of the seniors had never flown on an airplane or stayed in a hotel, much less enjoyed the thrill of going down a ski slope.

“It’s tremendous. They’ll say, ‘I didn’t know if I was going to be able to stand up on skis, and I went up on this bigger (hill), came down and I didn’t fall. I want to try something bigger now. I want to do something more’.”

Besides skiing, the students got an opportunity to do some sightseeing. One day, they went into Aspen for shopping, lunch and ice skating. They also took in the Glenwood Hot Springs, a resort known for its pedestrian bridge, breathtaking views and the world’s largest hot springs pool. One evening, students were treated to the movie “Black Panther”, complete with audio description.

“They gave us one whole theater to ourselves and they played the audio description aloud for the whole group.”

This year, the Foreseeable Future Foundation sponsored the trip, covering the entire cost of airfare for the kids. The school typically holds fundraisers and students are asked to pay $200 toward the cost of the trip.

“That was pretty impressive,” Hedrick said of the Foreseeable Future funding. “We were pretty excited about that. Our main expense is the airfare and meals as we travel. We were thrilled.”

As an O&M instructor, part of Hedrick’s job is to instill independence and confidence in her students. Trips like the one to Colorado go a long way toward accomplishing that objective.

“We were really impressed with how independent they were and how few times they called and asked us for help. Just to stay in a hotel room on their own, navigate through a hotel and ski… it’s a more independent experience all around.”

To find out more about Challenge Aspen and the programs they offer, click here to visit their website.