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Non-profit teaches the blind to cross-country ski

Local guides call Ski for Light experience “rewarding” and are working on bringing a version to CB

by Olivia Lueckemeyer

For many disabled adults, winter recreation can seem like an unattainable dream. Fortunately, a national non-profit is challenging that notion by offering an annual program that allows visually impaired and mobility impaired adults the chance to cross-country ski. The program has a unique connection to Crested Butte through part-time locals John and Marsha Soucheray, who say their 15-year stint as guides has provided them with an immense appreciation for those who attempt a pastime many of us take for granted.

“It’s a really fun week and a great way to give back,” John said. “We take our athletic talents for granted and if we can get somebody who is a bit less fortunate outside, having fun and enjoying something, it is very satisfying and enriching for the guides.”

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Modeled after a similar Norwegian program, Ski for Light, Inc. (SFL) was founded in the United States in 1975 with the mission of “enhancing the quality of life and independence of visually or mobility impaired adults through a program of cross-country skiing.” Held at a different U.S. location each year, the weeklong program matches each attendee with an experienced skier who acts as an instructor. Some participants are looking for the chance to learn the basics, while others are interested in improving their skill and endurance.

“I’d say it’s about half and half,” Marsha explained. “There are a lot of return guides and skiers, and sometimes that is the only time they will ski all year.”

Participants and guides ski classic style in parallel tracks, enabling the guide to direct his or her partner and advise them about how the trail is progressing. Consequently, a special bond is formed between the two individuals; the skier must place trust in the guide to keep them moving in the right direction, while the guide must learn to communicate in a way that is effective for someone who relies on unconventional means to perform the task.

Last year the Soucherays recruited their friend, long-time local Jerry Deverell, to participate in the event held in Michigan. Moved by the participants’ ability to overcome the challenge of skiing without sight, Deverell said his experience as a guide was as rewarding and informative as it is for the skiers.

“You basically become their seeing eye guide,” Deverell said. “They have to trust in you, but some of these people have been blind their entire lives, and I was so impressed by them. They have such amazing confidence with their blindness that nothing is too much for them.”

Crested Butte’s Rich Smith has also participated in the event for the past two years and describes himself as “hooked.”

“I’m definitely humbled by what these folks go through every day, while we are able to go on with our lives and sight and it’s something we take for granted,” Smith said. “We help them out for a week of outdoor recreation that they probably wouldn’t be able to experience unless it was in this type of setting.”

New guides undergo a day of training and are taught how to communicate with the blind through useful terminology—such as right, left, up and down—and physical touch. To truly sympathize with what the participant is experiencing, new guides are also required to ski with blindfolds on.

“It really includes your manners,” Deverell said. “You have to walk up to people and touch their arm, introduce yourself and let them know you are going to be guiding them today. You always have to say hello and goodbye and make sure they understand where you are. It took my confidence and being able to show someone a good time out on skis.”

For many of the blind or visually impaired individuals, the SFL event is one of the only times they are moving without the help of a cane or a dog. Marsha said this is especially satisfying for the participants.

“One of the things people have said is that they are so used to walking with a cane or with a dog, but when they ski they look the same as everybody else,” Marsha said. “They are just using ski poles, and it’s extremely liberating.”

For John and Marsha, lifelong friendships have been formed from their experience volunteering for the organization. Recently they took a bike trip along the coast of Ireland with a visually impaired friend they met at an SFL event and her daughter.

“She is blind and we’ve guided her so she and I were on a tandem bicycle,” John said.

“That is one of the really fun things about Ski for Light,” Marsha added. “We’ve met visually impaired and sighted people that have become dear friends.”

While the couple had hoped to bring the event to Crested Butte, a number of hurdles, such as price and available resources, have made the prospect currently unfeasible. However, Smith, who sits on the Crested Butte Nordic board, says plans are underway to perhaps bring a smaller, regional event to the valley.

“We have been investigating, as part of our mission, to try to get Ski for Light here,” Smith said. “It might not be on an international level, but we are working on a smaller-scale event and are taking steps to do that.”

In the meantime, John and Marsha hope to recruit more guides from Crested Butte to participate in upcoming events, such as next year’s program at the Snow Mountain Ranch in Granby.

“If we can’t get into Crested Butte we would love to have more people come up to Granby,” John said. “When Jerry and Rich came we were so excited. It would be so nice to have people from Crested Butte join in the fun.”

Deverell, who John said was selected last year as the spokesperson for the new guides due to his enthusiasm for the program, also expressed his excitement for next year’s event.

“I love to cross-country ski and to be able to share that with someone who is blind and show them a good time, it’s rewarding,” Deverell said. “I had a lot of fun and met a lot of great people.”

To learn more about Ski for Light or for information about next year’s event, contact John Soucheray at johnsoucheray@me.com or Jerry Deverell at jcdgrit@gmail.com.

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